Tree transformation

  • Dennis Fujimoto / The Garden Island

    Albizia trees are moved toward a chipper along Maluhia Road near Koloa Wednesday.

  • Dennis Fujimoto / The Garden Island

    Felled albizia trees along Maluhia Road near Koloa Wednesday await equipment to move them to a chipper.

  • Dennis Fujimoto / The Garden Island

    Heavy equipment moves felled albizia trees to a chipper along Maluhia Road in Koloa Wednesday.

  • Dennis Fujimoto / The Garden Island

    Wood chips in the foreground, felled albizia, and new plantings further up the hill are seen along Maluhia Road in Koloa Wednesday.

  • Jessica Else / The Garden Island

    Acres of downed albizia trees on Maluhia Road in Koloa are being processed into wood chips to fuel a power plant near Knudsen Gap.

  • Dennis Fujimoto / The Garden Island

    Heavy equipment moves downed albizia trees to a chipper, which loads the chips onto a waiting truck for transport.

  • Dennis Fujimoto / The Garden Island

    Heavy equipment moves felled albizia trees to the chipper along Maluhia Road in Koloa Wednesday.

KOLOA — Eucalyptus spread their branches in an iconic arch over Maluhia Road.

Visitors and residents drive through the shaded archway, taking videos and photos and peppering them with hashtags on social media. Local legends are associated with the two-lane landmark called “Tree Tunnel.”

And soon, more eucalyptus trees will be planted along the road.

But this month, people driving the half-mile stretch just after the tunnel ends are noticing a field of downed albizia trees — 65 acres worth, to be exact.

“Trees had been cut down along the highway between the tree tunnel and Koloa. Not the tree tunnel trees but ones closer to Koloa..all the trees on one side of the highway…then piled in the field there,” read a comment on TripAdvisor. “Obviously something is going to be built there. Does anyone know whats going on?”

Someone does.

It’s part of Kauai’s renewable energy projects, specifically, the biomass facility operated by Green Energy Team — where invasive species and locally grown trees are chipped and burned to produce 12 percent of the island’s power.

And because the harvest is part of normal agricultural operations, Green Energy Team hasn’t done any outreach to inform the community about what’s going on, said Gilles Lebbe, spokesman for Green Energy Team LLC, which operates the biomass facility near Knudsen Gap.

Green Energy says they haven’t gotten any direct questions about the project from the community. The company doesn’t make efforts to announce projects on a regular basis.

“We announce those jobs that will impact traffic as required by the state or county,” Lebbe said.

The company doesn’t count the exact number of trees on an acre and hasn’t calculated how many albizia trees were downed along Maluhia Road, as accounting is done per acre and per ton. But, it does look like thousands have been removed. In a field next door, albizia seedlings are sprouting — once they’re grown they’ll also go into the chipper and supply some energy for Kauai.

There is a reason Green Energy Team is targeting albizia.

“Albizia is a very invasive species and has invaded thousands of acres of former cane land on Kauai in the last decades. Green Energy is now harvesting these trees to create renewable energy,” said Lebbe.

In some areas, Green Energy is planting trees for harvest, as they grow quickly, but these albizia trees were naturally seeded in.

Brought to Hawaii more than 100 years ago, albizia trees were intended to stop erosion. They spread out of control when the sugar cane era ended, according to the Hawaii Invasive Species Council, and have been prolific across the islands ever since.

Green Energy conducts its operations year-round and in-house, from the growing of seedlings at its greenhouses to the production of electricity. Once they’ve cleaned up the current harvest of albizia from the acreage fronting Maluhia Road, the replanting will begin.

“After harvesting albizia trees, Green Energy plants noninvasive eucalyptus trees in a short rotation plantation model. These plantations then provide a long term and stable supply of wood for the power plant,” Lebbe said.

The biomass facility sparked to life in 2015 and Green Energy Team was founded in 2005 on Kauai. The whole project was given the go-ahead by former Gov. Neil Abercrombe as a way to prevent forest fires and promote renewable energy. It’s the first closed-loop, biomass-to-energy plant in the United States. The wood to power the plant comes from different areas on the island, including Kokee State Park.

•••

Jessica Else, environment writer, can be reached at 245-0452 or jelse@thegardenisland.com.

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