The state may not have money to burn. But we do have eucalyptus.
The fast growing, flowering tree was introduced to Hawaii nearly 150 years ago and is now being tested for use as an alternative energy source. Just last week, the state’s sole coal-fired power plant, AES Hawaii, Inc. began adding eucalyptus chips to its coal supply, in order to test its ability to create energy. AES found that the eucalyptus chips boosted the AES plant’s output from 180 to 185 megawatts. And that extra five megawatts is enough to power 5,000 homes on Oahu per year.
Several of the tree’s natural characteristics make it a viable and renewable resource. Eucalyptus not only grows quickly but also regenerates, producing a high yield of wood in a short period of time. In addition, it burns freely, leaves little ash, produces good charcoal, and it is drought tolerant and frost hardy. Of course, for the eucalyptus being grown and harvested on the Big Island, drought and frost are not much of a concern. But the plant’s ability to withstand extreme conditions is testament to its strength and thus its reliability as an renewable source of energy.
Critics are questioning the environmental and economic costs of growing, harvesting, and burning eucalyptus for energy. While AES Vice President, Patrick Murphy, claims that the cost to generate energy from eucalyptus will be competitive with the cost of producing energy from oil, he told the Star Advertiser that it will, in fact, be more expensive than coal.
In response to environmental concerns, the company’s president and general manager, Jeff Walsh, insists, “Eucalyptus is a viable and sustainable source of alternative energy…and can be harvested and converted with minimal environmental impact.” Last week’s test burn was not only for the sake of measuring the amount of energy produced by the eucalyptus chips, but was also a step toward proving that the process is safe and environmentally friendly.
If the process is found to quiet environmental concerns, and if AES receives regulatory approval, the next step will be to secure an agreement with Hawaiian Electric Company (HECO) and a long-term contract with a timber supplier. AES is already in negotiations with HECO. And the Big Island’s Sunbear Plantation has plenty more timber where the chips for the test burn came from; 2.5 million tons of eucalyptus trees to be exact.
If all goes as AES plans, the plant may eventually increase biomass output from five megawatts to 20 megawatts, supplying power to 20,000 homes, creating 10 to 15 permanent and two or three part-time jobs, all while bringing Hawaii one step closer to our Clean Energy Initiative goal.