Hawaiian Utility Looks Inward for Energy

Hawaii’s major electric utility, feeling the sting from a nearly 100 percent reliance on imported and increasingly expensive energy, is looking inward to the Islands’ considerable biomass and biofuels potential to reinforce its energy supply. Hawaiian Electric Company (HECO) this week asked the ethanol industry to supply its renewable fuel for use in HECO’s new Campbell Industrial Park Generating Station.

HECO president and CEO, Mike May, said the utility would like to use locally produced ethanol in the facility right from the beginning of the project’s operation, expected in 2009. He added HECO is also exploring the option of using an ethanol-diesel blend in existing diesel-fired electricity generating units. “Renewable ethanol represents a clear opportunity to grow a significant portion of our own fuel locally and begin to break the hold imported fuels have on us,” May said. “Our goal is to replace imported fossil fuel with ‘local’ agricultural energy to the extent possible. Encouraging local production of renewable biofuels would protect open space and keep it green with energy crops, create jobs here in agriculture, manufacturing and other sectors, and keep more money at home by growing a sustainable economy.” Hawaiian Electric’s solicitation of interest letter will ask prospective suppliers to indicate their ability to provide ethanol to specifications such as chemical composition and heat-generating capacity for use in a blend of ethanol and naphtha in the new plant. In the future, blended ethanol and diesel might be used in existing diesel-fired units on Maui, the Big Island and Oahu. HECO’s announcement was made at the University of Hawaii (UH) College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR). At the news conference, Dr. Andrew Hashimoto, dean and director of CTAHR, said: “It is clear that we must find other agricultural enterprises to occupy the lands formerly used for sugar and pineapple,” Hashimoto said. “Taking the land out of agriculture is not a wise, sustainable decision. Agriculture is not only important for food production, green open space and groundwater discharge. It can also create fuels for energy…I hope today’s event will be an important step toward ensuring Hawaii’s energy security.” The solicitation of interest to vendors is the first step. After receiving responses, the next step — to be taken in consultation with the Public Utilities Commission and the Consumer Advocate (CA) — would be a more detailed request for proposals or direct negotiations with promising providers. The PUC, with input from the CA, must finally approve all fuel contracts. The current proposed fuel for the new plant scheduled to come online in 2009 is naphtha, the cleanest burning of the fossil fuels available to HECO. Naphtha is currently refined in excess in Hawaii, so no new crude oil would need to be imported to meet the needs of the new unit. The use of an ethanol blend will depend on the level of interest generated and resolving the environmental, logistical and operational impacts of receiving, storing, blending and burning ethanol at the proposed new unit site. HECO is in the midst of a multi-phase biofuels investigation program. Phase One, a biofuels resource assessment, has been completed under the direction of Associate Dean Charles M. Kinoshita of the UH CTAHR. The study found that biodiesel and ethanol are the most promising candidate biofuels in Hawaii based on potential reliability of supplies, compatibility with existing and planned units and cost. The second phase, a biofuels combustion test program, is under way. The third phase, tentatively planned to begin later this year, is an assessment of the needed facilities and operational changes to use biofuels in existing generators. Based on the outcome of the first three phases, the fourth stage would be a utility-scale demonstration. Maui Electric Company (MECO), which already uses biodiesel in some of its existing units, has also hired a biofuels consultant to determine an initial compatibility on using ethanol in existing MECO diesel units.