New Hawaii Biodiesel Plant Could Be Game Changer

Sophie Cocke/ Civil Beat

KEAAU, BIG ISLAND — Biofuels in Hawaii suffer the chicken or the egg problem.

It's hard to attract investment for a biofuel plant without an available and proven feedstock, such as eucalyptus or sweet sorghum, to supply it. And it's hard to get farmers to take the risk of growing the feedstocks without an already built plant.

Now, one company seems to have cracked the formula. And it could change the face of locally-produced biodiesel and the Big Island's farming landscape.

Earlier this week, Pacific Biodiesel unveiled its Big Island Biodiesel plant, capable of meeting 8 percent of the state's biodiesel needs for ground transportation. It's the first plant to be built in Hawaii capable of processing a range of plant products.

The much anticipated facility opening brought out political heavyweights, including Sen. Daniel Inouye, with his Secret Service agents, and Gov. Neil Abercrombie. State Sen. Mike Gabbard and Rep. Denny Coffman, who chair the Legislature’s energy and environment committees, and Big Island Mayor Billy Kenoi also showed up in the remote industrial section of Keaau.

The new fuel plant will process one of the rankest substances there is: trap grease, the fetid, congealed waste products from restaurants.

It will also — hopefully — produce an abundance of fuel from locally-grown plants, such as jatropha, sunflower and safflower, to replace gasoline and help the state meet its goals of reducing its dependence on imported oil.

Pacific Biodiesel's other two plants, located on Maui and Oahu, have operated on used cooking oil. But this newest plant which is about twice as efficient and can process a wide range of feedstocks could provide a jumpstart to the local ag industry, where farmers haves struggled with the high costs of land, imported fertilizers and feeds.

“The more a farmer can diversify his commodity base the better he will be,” said Russell Kokubun, chair of the state Dept. of Agriculture. “I think that this is something that has a very bright future for the entire state of Hawaii.”

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