Rob Parsons

No Fuel Like a Biofuel

by Rob Parsons

April 05, 2007

Back in February, I got an email from David DuByne, a former Maui resident now working on bio-fuel development and organic farming projects in Northern Thailand. He had read my Feb. 15, 2007 article, "Potential Energy" and wrote to tell me he had just finished a book on biofuels. He said the book was written as an ESL (English as a Second Language) text, so that oil and energy jargon can be simplified for the average reader.

Dave recently wrote back, with a lot of valuable information on the rush to implement biofuels for our energy needs. His letter appears on Page 6.

Hawai`i, like many other places worldwide, seems enamored with the idea of ethanol and biodiesel fuel crops helping to wean our dependence on imported fossil fuels. At the same time, drawbacks to the ambitious efforts are surfacing.

Ethanol not only reduces automobile engine performance and gas mileage, but can be damaging to marine or garden equipment engines, since the alcohol component attracts water. Ethanol also requires a large input of water for processing, and produces an odorous organic byproduct, vinesse, at a 12 to one ration for each gallon of ethanol.

Two proposals are afoot to build mega-sized biodiesel refineries to Hawai`i. Maui Electric handpicked two Mainlanders who formed a corporation called BlueEarth biofuels, and hope to construct a facility to produce 40 million gallons per year by 2009, and 120 million gallons by 2011. Last week, Imperium Biofuels of Seattle announced plans for a 100 million gallon capacity refinery on Oahu. Both indicated they would have to import vegetable oil, as there is no current production of oil crops on Hawai`i ag lands.

There is a growing awareness that cheaply produced oil crops worldwide contribute to rainforest destruction, soil erosion, water pollution, and social justice issues. Palm oil produced in Malaysia, Borneo and Indonesia has attracted much of the attention over ecosystem devastation, even while millions more hectares of rainforest are imperiled due to increased interest in palm, as a non-trans-fat oil, and as a biodiesel feedstock.

Soya oil cultivation in South America is equally disastrous, according to a report by the Institute of Scientists In Society. The ISIS report, GM Soya Disaster in Latin America, details the multiple environmental and socio-economic problems associated with large mono-cropping efforts in Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Argentina. "As long as these countries continue to embrace neoliberal models of development and respond to demand from the globalized economy, the rapid proliferation of soybean will increase, and so will the associated ecological and social impacts."

Competition for ag lands between food and energy needs will raise food prices for everyone, while reducing our fossil fuel dependency only minimally. Since President Bush's mention of ethanol in his 2006 State of the Union address, corn prices have risen to four dollars a bushel, prompting street protests in Mexico, where the price of tortillas has doubled. The push to bioenergy may continue to have a large ripple effect across a wide economic spectrum, as well as environmental.

Locally, our public utility monopolies seem to be trying to think outside the box of their petroleum-fueled, centralized power grid old paradigm. But it's increasingly obvious that the plans for a huge biodiesel refinery are leading us down a dead-end road.

Bills at the state legislature to support $59 million in special revenue bonds to finance the BlueEarth plant sailed through early hearings, but now are facing opposition. Ten statewide environmental groups and at least 50 individuals sent opposing testimony, which had minimal support. But BlueEarth, HECO, and MECO brought in the cavalry, including building trade unions and the Maui Chamber of Commerce. A decision will be made this week, though the proposal would still face due diligence for the bonds, and Public Utility Commission approvals.

Karen Chun, Sierra Club Maui board member and webmaster, has put together an impressive compilation of articles and information on biofuels at www.hi.sierraclub.org/maui/biodiesel.html. Chun also offered these strategies as keys to our energy sustainability:

? Decentralization: Rooftop solar hot water and photovoltaic, personal wind generation.

? Conservation through intelligent building design, transportation choices, infrastructure, town design, and building codes.

? Conservation through fewer disposable products and more efficient energy use design.

While we hurry towards so-called renewable alternatives, we have barely scratched the surface on these approaches. One clear obstacle is the existing roadblock to net-metering decentralized electric generation, due to bureaucratic red tape as well as a limit on the number of participants.

State funding and incentives to biofuel production will be best applied to small, gradual local efforts, not continuing to send our energy and food dollars out of the state. Local bioenergy efforts hold more promise than those rooted in the rocky soil of large corporate global economics.