Biomass plant nears final testing

LIHUE — The turbine is back together, but it will still be another six to eight weeks until Green Energy Team’s $90 million biomass-to-energy facility in Koloa starts producing steam.

The hold-up has been that the turbine that converts steam energy into power didn’t work as efficiently as anticipated when the plant’s operators started testing it this spring.

The system was producing 7.5 megawatts — more than the 6.5 megawatt threshold specified in the facility’s contract with Kauai Island Utility Cooperative. But it was taking more wood chip fuel to get there than it should.

The commercial contractor that assembled the turbine has since been working on tweaking the turbine for maximum efficiency.

The facility was originally expected to be on the grid in April. Then, in mid-July, Singer predicted it would be up and running sometime between mid-September and mid-October.

Now, the target start date has been pushed back to November.

“It’s probably going to be the most tested or at least the most observed turbine in the history of Kauai,” Singer said. “Everybody has a vested interest in making sure it’s right this time.”

Now that the turbine is reassembled, Singer said it will probably take another two to three weeks to reconnect the equipment to it. Then the plant will launch into the final testing phase, which Singer said will probably last about three weeks.

“We did most of the testing before, so it will be an abbreviated testing,” Singer said. “Now it’s just verifying that the efficiency’s there.”

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.

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.

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