Through ethanol, isle sugar can reign again
A FORMER director of the CIA has said that the greatest threat to our national security is our dependence on foreign oil. Before the fighting in Lebanon began mid-July, Goldman Sachs, one of the country's leading investment banks, predicted that oil would rise to $100 a barrel -- even without any intervening terrorist events. That estimate might be too conservative given China and India's growing demand for oil coupled with their recent deals with oil-producing states and the spreading violence in the Middle East. Nevertheless, two events this week brought hope that Hawaii can create a sustainable biofuels industry that will lead to greater energy self-sufficiency.
First, two leaders in worldwide energy policy who came to Hawaii last week to meet with key business and government leaders brought the message that Hawaii is uniquely positioned to lead the other 49 states out of this national security quagmire by profitably producing and using ethanol made from sugar cane. Rinaldo Brutoco and Jerry Brown, representatives of the World Business Academy, pointed to the example of Brazil, which by mandating ethanol use and developing its sugar cane ethanol industry, became the first country in the world to kick its oil import habit. Brazil spent about $200 per vehicle to convert cars to flex-fuel vehicles that can run on gasoline, pure ethanol or a blend. The conversion was one of the fastest technological transitions that the world has known. Seven out of every 10 new cars sold in Brazil are flex-fuel because a tank of ethanol is cheaper than a tank of gasoline.
The second major event this week was the announcement by Maui Land & Pineapple that it is joining with Kamehameha Schools and Grove Farm to explore biofuel technologies that will complement Hawaii's natural resources.
We need to build on the energy initiatives that the Legislature enacted last session to make sure our ethanol industry realizes its potential. Ethanol from sugar cane is superior to ethanol from corn and cheaper. It is cheaper partly because it can be produced by burning bagasse rather than oil or coal, and because the starch in corn must first be turned into sugar before being distilled into alcohol.
We can help create a market for ethanol from sugar cane by increasing demand for it. If producers know there is a market, the ethanol plants will be built. We can increase demand by requiring the state to convert its fleet of cars to flex-fuel vehicles and by requiring Hawaiian Electric to accept a permit condition for its new electric plants that would require 50 percent of its energy to be supplied by ethanol. If HECO could be assured that it could obtain a reliable supply of ethanol fuel on cost-effective terms, its resulting lower projected fuel costs would lead to better terms from the financial markets for construction loans for new plants.
Americans' historical ability to overcome foreign threats and lead the world in technological innovations has not changed. Nor has our political will. Now Hawaii can build on its historical know-how with sugar cane to move these islands and the nation where we all need to go.
Robert Bunda is president of the state Senate.