Biomass plant stalled while turbine tweaked

KOLOA — It’ll be another two to three months until Green Energy Team’s $90 million biomass-to-energy facility in Koloa starts producing steam.

The hold-up, plant manager Randolph Singer said, is that the turbine that converts steam energy into power isn’t working as efficiently as it could be.

“It works, and it’s good enough to meet the contract that we have with KIUC, but it’s not good enough for us,” Singer said. “Good enough is not good enough when you have a brand-new power plant like this and when everything’s still under warranty.”

The facility was originally expected to be on the grid in April.

“It’s not a big deal from our standpoint,” said Jim Kelly, spokesman for Kauai Island Utility Cooperative. “This is the time to work out the bugs, before it’s in full commercial operation, so that when it comes online its reliability is as close to 100 percent as they can make it.”

The plant, located near Knudsen Gap, will generate about 11 percent of the island’s electricity — enough to power 8,500 households and replace about 3.7 million gallons of imported oil annually. It is the first closed-loop, biomass-to-energy plant in the United States, and will rely completely on its own sources of Kauai biomass wood chips.

Key to the project is that GET has its own supply of albizia trees. About 75 percent of the wood will come from its plantations — it has 3,500 acres secured and plans to rotate for growing and cutting trees to feed the plant. It has licenses, leases and farming agreements on several thousand acres of private and public land. Most of the lands it is using are overgrown with albizia, Singer said. Once those trees have been removed, non-invasive eucalyptus will be planted and later used for fuel.

The other 25 percent of the wood will come from land near Koloa-owned Hawaiian Mahogany Inc. under a clearing right agreement.

This is critical, Singer said, because the biggest challenge biomass plants face is having a steady fuel supply. He said that won’t be a problem here.

During a test run last month, the system was producing 7.5 megawatts — more than the 6.5 megawatt threshold specified in the facility’s KIUC contract, Singer said. But it’s taking more wood chip fuel to get there than it should.

The commercial contractor that assembled the turbine is currently working on tweaking it for maximum efficiency.

“If it was a new car and it was supposed to get 19 miles to the gallon, and it only got you 12 miles per gallon, you want that added efficiency out of it,” Singer said. “It’s still a car, it still gets you from point A to point B. But in this case we’re not satisfied. We know we can get more out of it.”

Singer said it’s easier to fix the problem now — before the plant is up and running — than later on when KIUC starts relying on it for energy.

“We don’t want to come online and then not be as reliable or not be able to meet the requirements that KIUC needs all the time,” he said. “We have the time right now. The contractors are working 24/7 to get this done as soon as possible.”

When up and running, the plant will be a “closed-loop system.” In other words, it is not dependent on off-island, outside companies or resources.

It will help also KIUC reach its goal of generating half of the island’s power from renewable sources by 2023.

Singer said the plant’s carbon footprint will be almost neutral. Even the ash from burning the trees will be recycled as fertilizer for more trees that will be grown as fuel.

“The plant itself is actually carbon negative but we do use some diesel for the trucks to bring the wood chips here and that does give us a very small footprint,” he said.

The plant will use an estimated 80,000 to 90,000 gallons of diesel on an annual basis, Singer said.

There is some controversy, however, pertaining to the environmental friendliness of biomass energy.

Some environmentalists are putting pressure on the White House to eliminate biomass energy as a means of compliance under the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, which will regulate carbon pollution from power plants.

Under the Clean Power Plan, states have the option of using renewable energy like wind and solar to reduce emissions of pollutants like carbon dioxide that disrupt the climate. But burning wood for energy is highly polluting, according to biomass opponents, including Sierra Club and Clean Air Task Force.

“Burning trees for electricity hurts our climate by producing dangerous amounts of carbon pollution,” Kevin Bundy, climate legal director and senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit based in Tuscon, Arizona, stated in a press release. “The Obama administration’s power plant policies must be based on science, and the science clearly shows that burning trees for power will likely make the climate crisis worse.”

Locally, concerns about the sustainability of biomass energy were cited by Native Hawaiians who successfully petitioned against a proposal to build the biomass plant on Kekaha lands held in trust for homesteading.

“We do not approve of our homelands being leased in this manner,” Kawai Warren, president of Kekaha Homelands, said when the long-term land lease proposal was defeated in 2011. “Biomass is definitely not the best and highest use of our homelands, and is also questionable as a sustainable energy source.”

Two years later, the company’s quest for trees on trust lands in Anahola was denied by homesteaders who claimed Hawaiian lands should not be leased to non-Hawaiians.

Singer said that while there’s no perfect energy solution, the biomass plant marks a huge upgrade for Kauai.

“Compared to what Kauai has right now and the options available to Kauai right now, this is a vast, vast improvement over the diesel plants, which is the primary source of power at this time,” Singer said. “Many groups are absolutely against any fossil fuel altogether, and that’s understandable. There are alternatives but they aren’t really there yet. Wind power’s great, but it’s only great on a windy day and it kills sea birds. Solar is great but only on a sunny day and only for four to six hours.

“I’m sure some day Kauai and Hawaii will get to their 100 percent renewable goals, but that’s not without an extreme amount of investment,” Singer continued. “To do it right now, the price of electricity would be prohibitive and we already have the highest rates in the nation.”

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