Company plans to mass-produce biodiesel in Kapolei
A Seattle-based company wants to build a biodiesel plant in Kapolei that it says will be one of the country's largest.
Imperium Renewables Inc. is planning a $90 million "advanced method biodiesel processing" plant on state Department of Transportation land at Barbers Point Harbor, company representatives told the Makakilo-Kapolei-Honokai Hale Neighborhood Board last month, its Chairwoman Maeda Timson said.
Imperium representatives said the plant would produce 100 million gallons a year of biodiesel from imported vegetable oil, Timson said. The nonfossil fuel source could be oil palms imported from South East Asia, plus locally grown Hawaii plants and possibly, when the technology develops, algae, she said.
That plant size would be equal to Imperium's under-construction plant in Gray's Harbor, Wash., which the company touts in a Feb. 21 press release as "the nation's largest biodiesel plant."
Imperium told the neighborhood board its Oahu plant will create 70 "high-paying, permanent jobs" and employ 350 during construction, Timson said.
Imperium's Feb. 21 release announced that it had received $214 million in investments -- including $113 million of private equity -- and that it "plans to open additional facilities around the world, including Hawaii, the Northeast United States and internationally."
However, "Imperium is not making any formal comments on details surrounding the potential for a facility in Hawaii," John Williams, a public relations spokesman for the company, said Friday by e-mail.
By comparison, Imperium's only operating biodiesel plant -- Seattle Biodiesel -- has produced 5 million gallons a year of biodiesel from vegetable oils since 2005, the company Web site says.
Hawaii's only two biodiesel plants -- Pacific Biodiesel's Maui and Oahu operations -- together could produce 1.5 million gallons a year of biodiesel from waste cooking oil, Pacific Biodiesel President Robert King said.
The Imperium plan is not the only biodiesel proposal on the drawing board. Last month, Maui Electric Co. and BlueEarth Maui Biodiesel LLC proposed a $61 million refinery on Maui to produce up to 120 million gallons a year of biodiesel to run MECO's largest diesel-fired power plant.
Because the joint-venture involves a regulated utility (MECO parent Hawaiian Electric Co.), it must be approved by the state Public Utilities Commission. BlueEarth/HECO's Maui venture also is seeking special-purpose revenue bonds to finance construction from the state Legislature via Senate Bill 1718, House Draft 1. The bill is awaiting scheduling by the House Finance Committee.
BlueEarth hopes to start operating the first phase of its refinery in 2009 with imported oils -- probably palm oil, said its company spokesman Ray Sweeney. But it could ultimately produce biodiesel fuels made from Hawaii-grown oil products that could include coconut or kukui nuts.
The Maui plant is proposed to start producing up to 40 million gallons a year in 2009.
Meanwhile, HECO hopes to build a new, peak-power generating plant at Campbell Industrial Park, also by 2009, said HECO spokesman Peter Rosegg.
HECO has promised the new plant will run on either biodiesel or ethanol, which can be made from sugar cane. Rosegg said he cannot disclose whether Imperium was among a number of bidders to supply the 5-20 million gallons a year that plant needs, because the request-for-proposals process is not public.
HECO's proposed plant would not need a large quantity of fuel because it will operate as an on-again, off-again "peaking" power plant that can be quickly fired up for short-term use, such as during the 5-9 p.m. highest use of electricity, Rosegg said.
HECO will decide based on the proposals it receives whether to run the new plant on biodiesel or ethanol, Rosegg said.
The HECO plant also requires approval from the PUC before construction.
Biodiesel is diesel fuel made from plant-based oils. It can be used in diesel engines alone or in mixtures with petroleum-based diesels. It is cleaner-burning, less combustible and less toxic than petroleum-based diesel.
Ethanol, or grain alcohol, can be produced from corn, sugar or other plant resources and used in a mixture with gasoline.
Some observers say that not all biodiesel is equally "green." Worldwide demand for the most prolific biodiesel source -- palm oil -- is driving rain forest slashing and burning to make way for oil palm plantations, a destructive practice that contributes to global warming through forest fires, according to testimony at the state Legislature from Environmental Defense, Life of the Land and other groups and individuals.
According to a state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism study, Hawaii has, at most, about 173,000 acres of agricultural land not currently in sugar or other agricultural production on all islands that might be used for biomass -- either biodiesel or ethanol feedstocks.
Even if all that land were planted in the highest-yielding oil plant -- palm oil -- and it produced at maximum levels about 750 gallons per acre per year, the resulting biodiesel would be unlikely to supply even one of the two large plants now on the drawing board, calculated Kelly King, Pacific Biodiesel marketing and communications director.
The Kings say their concern with the large plants is that they are not sustainable with Hawaii-raised crops. Pacific Biodiesel's corporate strategy is to size Hawaii-based biodiesel production to the quantity of feedstock that can actually be grown here, they say.
Any production of biodiesel larger than what can be grown on state agricultural lands that are not being used for food crops would have to come from imported vegetable oils, industry observers agree. Opinions differ on whether that is "environmentally friendly."
Hawaii state government has set a goal of getting 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020 and has required 20 percent of gasoline sold in the state to be composed of ethanol since April. So far, none of the proposed Hawaii ethanol plants have broken ground, so the ethanol is being imported, just like the gasoline it is replacing.
Imperium talked informally with state Department of Health Clean Air Branch officials last year about what the state's air emission requirements are, but the company has not submitted an application for a permit, said Nolan Hirai, the branch's engineering supervisor.