Hawaii crops, algae may get funded for military biofuel
By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer
The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Navy are hoping to jumpstart the growth of crops and algae in Hawai'i that can be used for military fuel as part of an aggressive drive by the Pentagon to reduce its dependence on foreign oil and increase renewable energy sources.
An industry forum Tuesday and Wednesday at Marine Corps Base Hawaii will bring together government officials and potential biofuel companies from Hawai'i and the Mainland. As many as 40 companies and 250 people are expected to attend.
The Navy and the Agriculture Department want to evaluate the use of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding to set up biofuel projects in Hawai'i "as soon as possible."
How much funding remains unclear, but Hawai'i was selected for the initial collaboration between the two federal entities "because Hawai'i's energy costs are among the highest in the nation and imported oil supplies 90 percent of the state's energy," the USDA said. "A viable agricultural sector in Hawai'i can enhance Hawai'i's energy security, and energy projects like those anticipated by the Navy's needs can help rural economies."
Experts say Hawai'i's biofuel crop pursuit is in its infancy, and challenges include the need to build an entire pipeline — crop selection, growth and refinement of oils — to start satisfying Navy needs.
But the U.S. military is moving aggressively toward renewable energy sources — and the demand for it.
The Air Force recently flew an A-10 Thunderbolt II on a biofuel blend of oil from camelina, a plant related to mustard, and conventional JP-8 jet fuel.
Tests with F-15 and F-22 fighters and C-17 Globemaster III cargo planes are expected to follow.
The Navy, meanwhile, is expanding tests of biofuel blends in marine gas turbines that it uses in the surface fleet and tactical vehicles.
On Earth Day, which is April 22, the Navy will fly a "Green" Hornet F/A-18 on a biofuel and jet fuel mix.
By 2016, the Navy wants to deploy a "Great Green Fleet" that will be powered entirely by alternative fuels, said Navy Secretary Ray Mabus during the signing of the Navy and Department of Agriculture agreement on Jan. 21.
"Through alternative energy use, improved technological efficiencies and biofuel development," Mabus said, "we are going to improve the range and endurance of our ships and our aircraft, reduce their reliance on a vulnerable supply chain, and create a resistance to the external shocks that come from overreliance on a fragile global oil infrastructure."
The goal of next week's sessions is to use the purchasing power of the Navy as a "pull" for production.
The state has some biofuel production, but most of it comes from waste cooking oil and not from crops or algae, officials said.
"If you talk to the biofuel developers, they want to know, 'Hey, am I going to have a market? If I produce this stuff, who is going to buy it?' " said Ted Peck, Hawai'i's energy administrator. "What the Navy is going to do, and the (entire) military is going to do, same as the utility is going to do — they are going to create a market for local crops that are going to help drive that."
The U.S. military consumes about 80 million gallons of jet fuel a year in Hawai'i, Peck said.
Dovetailing with the military's pursuit of biofuel crops is interest by Hawaiian Electric, which this week said it is looking for a long-term supply of biofuels made from feedstocks produced and processed in Hawai'i.
HECO Executive Vice President Robbie Alm said the formal request for proposals is the next stage in the company's commitment to create a market for locally grown biofuels.
This first call for proposals will test the market and determine what HECO's next actions will be, officials said.
Many of the details of the Navy and Department of Agriculture collaboration remain unclear. Both federal entities are waiting for next week's forum to provide more information.
Breakout sessions will focus on the "big picture" for biofuels in Hawai'i, opportunities and challenges for agriculture producers, and converting crops into usable fuels.
Peck said part of the plan may include the Navy leasing some of its land to growers. Among that land may be the 7,500-acre Naval Munitions Command Lualualei on the Wai'anae Coast, he said.
What Hawai'i farmers could grow also would have to be determined.
The Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is betting on algae. DARPA recently told the British newspaper the Guardian that large-scale refining operations nationwide could within a few years produce 50 million gallons of fuel per year.
The goal is to get algae jet fuel down to $3 or below per gallon. San Diego-based General Atomics was previously awarded a $19.9 million DARPA project to work on algae jet fuel. The contract included work by Hawai'i BioEnergy, which was established by Kamehameha Schools, Grove Farm Co. and Maui Land & Pineapple.
ALGAE WORK IN ISLES
Peck, the state's energy administrator, said there are about eight companies either doing or planning to do algae work in Hawai'i.
Cyanotech Corp. has one of the largest algae farms in the nation at Keahole Point on the Big Island, but the 90-acre facility produces nutrient products BioAstin Natural Astaxanthin and Hawaiian Spirulina Pacifica, and not biofuel.
The University of Hawai'i estimated that the state could sustain a maximum of 40,000 acres of algae ponds, but fuel yield and cost-effectiveness for algae remains a subject of debate.
The New York Times recently reported that the Agriculture Department would soon announce a joint project with the Navy to grow camelina in Hawai'i to make biofuel. Camelina originated in northern Europe, grows up to 3 feet tall and has seeds containing 35 percent oil.
Another possibility mentioned is jatropha, a shrubby tree that grows on arid land and is suited to the tropics and subtropics, and whose seeds also are a source of biofuel.
The biofuel pipeline that officials say is needed in Hawai'i was extended a bit more in January when the Department of Energy awarded a $25 million grant to an Illinois company to build a demonstration plant to convert forestry, agriculture and algae "feedstocks" into green transportation fuels.
The demonstration plant at the Tesoro Corp. refinery in Kapolei is expected to start up in 2014.
"I can tell you, from our perspective, this (biofuel development) is worth our time and attention because it can be transformative for Hawai'i's agriculture industry and for Hawai''s energy independence ," Peck said.