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Wood from eucalyptus trees on the Big Island could soon be used to generate electricity.
Two men hope to harness eucalyptus for renewable energy
WAILUKU » Two Maui businessmen want to burn eucalyptus trees to generate energy on the Big Island.
Kent Smith and Hilton Unemori, who brought Kaheawa Wind to Maui, are behind the project. They formed Hamakua Biomass Energy LLC in February.
The company is preparing an environmental assessment for a low-emission, renewable-fuel generating station that would sell power to Hawaiian Electric Light Co.
Hamakua Biomass plans to draw on 13,000 acres of mature trees owned by Kamehameha Schools on the Big Island. The trees were planted as part of an earlier, unsuccessful attempt to convert the lands of Hamakua Sugar Co. into a wood plantation.
They hope to be operating by the end of 2010 or early 2011.
Hamakua Biomass expects to sell its higher-quality wood to a veneer mill, Tradewinds. Less-desirable products would go to the boiler.
The project's initial cost will be "close to $200 million," Smith said last week.
Peter Rosegg, spokesman for Hawaiian Electric Light, said the company is in "intensive negotiations for a purchase power agreement."
Because of the ongoing negotiations, Rosegg didn't want to say anything about them, except that HELCO "is very encouraged to see additional biomass energy" in its generating mix on the Big Island.
A 30-megawatt biomass plant could supply more than 15 percent of local needs.
Electricity from wood has a bad track record in Hawaii, because of Molokai Electric Co.'s experiment with kiawe in the late 1980s.
Problems with harvesting on rugged terrain contributed to the failure, and Maui Electric eventually took over the formerly independent Molokai utility and went back to using diesel oil.
Smith said it's a plus for Hamakua Biomass to operate on a former sugar plantation. All the infrastructure, including roads, is in place and should make harvesting logs simple.
By relying on a huge stock of similar trees -- planted in rows -- the generator operators will enjoy both a stable, secure supply and a known quality.
Guy Gilliland, chief executive officer of Hamakua Biomass, said the oldest trees on the plantation are 12 years old. Eucalyptus trees grow to harvestable size in six to eight years.
Wood will be chipped into 3-inch pieces, which will be blown up the combustion chamber, burning and rising in a hot, swirling stream.
Leaves are left behind to help restore the soil.
Emissions are low compared to petroleum generators, and low in sulfur.
Hamakua Biomass wants to locate its plant about a mile outside Ookala, which is convenient to existing HELCO transmission lines.