When the Kilauea Community Agricultural Center (now also known as Aina Ho‘okupu O Kilauea) was first incorporated as a nonprofit in 2015, it was probably true that most people on Kauai — if they’d heard about it at all — thought of it as small plots that community gardeners would tend.
For the 30 years it had taken to move the ag center from concept to reality, that was probably what most in the community expected. The history was that the 75-acre park was land set aside in creation of the adjoining Seacliff Plantation, an upscale luxury subdivision formed from former sugar fields that belonged to the Kilauea Sugar Plantation.
But today, the property has blossomed into far more than a collection of small parcels on which local people grow vegetables. Most recently, it has become the site of a collaboration of the ag center, a Kauai venture capital firm and an environmental science startup pushing ahead with a project to convert waste to, among other things, hydrogen gas and byproducts as varied as car fuel and fertilizer.
While the waste-to-hydrogen project probably won’t show visible results in Kilauea for two or three years, Yoshito L’Hote, the executive director of the ag park, is busy planning for projects as diverse as construction (now underway) of a commercial kitchen that could be used by family groups, food truck operators and others.
He also has a long-range plan — think five or even 10 years from now — to raise chickens and pigs on the property, using the waste-conversion technology to head off a variety of problems that today make it difficult for many communities to think of livestock operations as friends.
Along the way, L’Hote sees the ag park as taking a prominent role in increasing the amount and diversity of food production taken to scale on Kauai, though he knows that full food self-sufficiency — an attractive political objective receiving greater attention throughout Hawaii — as impractical.
“We cannot ignore the protein side” of the food supply system, L’Hote said. “A piggery today is not the piggery of 100 years ago.”
Any successful operation that brings raising food animals to the level of technological sophistication that will be necessary to create more self-sustaining island food resources must, necessarily, he said, address issues of odor, flies and rodents.
For now, GELF Sciences, the startup designing the waste-to-hydrogen process, envisions a testbed-sized system that will be built at the U.S. government’s Brackish Groundwater National Desalination Research Laboratory in Alamogordo, N.M. It will take, said Brett Danson of GELF Sciences, perhaps 18 months to two years to build and test the system at the laboratory.
After that, the unit will be shipped to Kauai and put in service on an experimental basis at the ag center.
“It’s a demonstration, building one unit,” L’Hote said. “We want to create a model at the ag center.”
Initially, the test unit will be capable of processing 500 gallons of waste per day. The waste will come, L’Hote said, from the ag center farming operations themselves, plus sources as diverse as byproducts from taro farms, the ag center commercial kitchen, a separate restroom building yet to be constructed, a Hanalei-based distillery and, eventually, possibly even trucks that now pump out septic tanks and cesspools.
The system is modular and, if it works as hoped, treatment capacity can be increased by connecting several units together.
L’Hote even thinks that, several years down the road, the system — if it works in the demonstration phase and can be taken to large-scale operations — could even become the basis for a sanitary sewer system to serve Kilauea town. It would address the problem of reliance on cesspools and septic tanks that afflict not just Kilauea but every part of Kauai.
Under its agreement with the county that permitted establishment of the ag center, the facility is obligated to develop means to dispose of its own wastes, ranging from sewage from a public bathroom, rotted produce and animal waste.
Key to the project is a technology called the microbial electrolytic cell, or MEC. It facilitates purification of the water that makes up a great deal of the waste, but also allows for recovery of valuable substances including hydrogen, acetate, animal feed and nutraceuticals — or food-like products that serve many of the same purposes of drugs and may be used in dietary supplements. Algae and worms that help in the treatment process are formed.
Darrius Pelissier, of Wellspring Impact Group, a start-up, Kauai-based, venture-capital firm, said cost estimates for the project are not yet final, but are likely to be in the “low millions.”
Wellspring, the ag center and GELF Sciences formed the KCAC Waste to Energy Limited Partnership, an unusual melding of venture capital firm and a nonprofit organization. Pelissier and Brett Danson, GELF Sciences’ CEO, said federal agencies are a likely source of some of the funding, but that science-focused private grantmakers might also become involved, in addition to money that could be put up by investors.
“The money goes where it is profitable,” Pelissier said. His firm, he said, “is focused on climate-based startups.” He declined to name other clients, though he said Wellspring hopes to draw interest from people with individual retirement accounts, as well as larger-dollar organizations.
In that respect, the project would appear to be on the cutting edge of ways to combine different sorts of funding if the objective is to develop unique new approaches to waste treatment.
Said Danson: “We are excited to have created a world-class team of expert scientists and engineers to solve longstanding waste issues across the Hawaiian islands, starting in Kilauea.”
Longtime reporter and retired communications executive Allan Parachini lives and makes furniture in Kilauea.