Last week I sent a new story to the Hawaii Independent (www.thehawaiiindependent.com) about the rapidly evolving biofuels situation here. There's so much happening, in fact, that the Independent decided run two articles about it. The first, about the biofuel land rush on this island, should be up sometime this week, I hope. The second, about biofuel projects on the other islands, is still in progress. And of course, as usual, I found out far more than I can recount in two 1000-word articles.
Essentially, there are six biofuel companies active on, or planning, projects to produce biodiesel or electrical power from green materials on this island; one of those wants to make fuel from algae; the others are looking for land to grow trees (mainly eucalyptus) or bushes for fuel. At least two companies have projects on Maui, at least one on Kaui--and the mother of them all, an enormous biodiesel-powered generator plant will be built on O'ahu. But all of them are involved in controversies of some sort--mostly about where in the heck they're going to get the huge acreage they'll need to produce enough green stuff to create a significant amount of energy. We're talking tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands of acres here.
Most of those efforts are concentrated on the Hamakua/North Hilo Coast. But heads up, Ka'u: there's one company that's looking in your direction. Alternative Fuels Hawaii is looking for 20,000-30,000 acres, probably in "South Hawai'i," to grow jatropha, a poisonous bush that produces oil-rich seeds, which the company wants to convert into biodiesel. This may or may not be a good idea--but I would suggest that Hamakua residents start boning up on this plant before they sign any long-term leases to this company. There's lots about it on the Web, and not all of it is good. A recent Reuters report, for instance (http://uk.reuters.com/article/oilRpt/idUKHKG7593720070912) on a biofuel noted that the plant, like arabica coffee, ripened unevenly and had to be harvested by hand, and that its toxicity posed possible hazards to harvesters and to processing plant workers. A Alternatives Fuels company officer whom I talked to claimed that most of the negative publicity came from promoters of a competing fuel plant, oil palms--and, indeed, the only critic quoted in the Reuters story was an "adviser to the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil." But the allegations are certainly worth looking into before we start committing sugar-plantation-sized parcels to this plant.
Palm oil, which is being grown on Kauai, has its own problems--mainly in that it's also grown for food, and boom in palm oil for biofuel has caused spikes in food prices in Indonesia and elsewhere.
More details will be available in the Independent articles, but these companies probably are already approaching local landholders and leaseholders. I urge anyone that they do contact to please do your homework. We certainly need to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, and biofuels generally produce less pollution than fossil fuels. But if we're not careful, we could basically be returning to a plantation economy, getting our "fossil fuel independence" at the cost of handing over huge swaths of our local land to corporations. Let's try doing something right for once, instead of just doing what some large investor wants us to do.