Don’t Give Up on Biofuels Yet, HECO. Introducing the 10-10 Plan.

Last week, TerViva attended the Asia Pacific Clean Energy Summit in Honolulu, where we presented our vision for Hawaii. We call it the “10-10 Plan”: to use pongamia to produce 10% of Hawaii’s current petroleum needs annually, using 10% of Hawaii’s available farmland.

In response to the Hawaii PUC’s call to action (http://1.usa.gov/1x2PFWc), Hawaiian Electric (“HECO”) recently presented its strategic goals for Hawaii’s energy future (http://1.usa.gov/YXk1ei). It prominently features the use of liquefied natural gas and increases the amount of solar energy production. It does not put much emphasis on biofuels. Hawaii currently generates most of its expensive electricity from oil-fired power plants, and it has been long-hoped that biofuels could replace the use of petroleum. While not explicitly stating so, HECO now seems to view biofuels as only a small part of Hawaii’s future energy mix.

TerViva hopes to change that with pongamia. The 10-10 Plan is ambitious. Hawaii currently uses approximately 42 million barrels of petroleum per year. 10% of that is 4.2 million barrels, or 178 million gallons. At our current projected yield for pongamia of 400 gallons per acre per year, that means we’ll need almost 4.5 million acres of land. But Hawaii’s total land mass is only 4.1 million acres, and total available farmland is only 1.2 million acres. 10% of that farmland, or 121,000 acres, means that pongamia will have to produce 1470 gallons per acre per year for the 10-10 plan to work (121,000 acres X 1,470 gallons per acre = 178 million gallons). That’s a big increase from 400 gallons per acre, and it’s quite bold to suggest that we will plant 10% of Hawaii’s farmland with pongamia.

So how will we make the 10-10 Plan a reality? There are 2 necessary developments:

Example pyrolysis process, courtesy of www.btgworld.com

Example pyrolysis process, courtesy of http://www.btgworld.com

 

First, we’ll have to find a way to take all those seed pod shells produced from pongamia and turn them into oil. Like other nuts such as almonds or peanuts, pongamia seeds grow inside of woody shells. Right now, the shells are a waste stream – it’s really the oilseeds that we care about for their vegetable oil and protein seed cake (for cattle feed).

But there is technology that converts woody biomass it into oil (e.g., pyrolysis).

We’ve done some modeling using assumptions provided to us by UOP, and we estimate that we’ll be able to double the oil yield per acre per year if we can convert the shells into oil.   These conversion technologies are not quite yet ready for primetime, but we hope that in the near future, they will be.

Second, we’ll need to move pongamia toward intercropping and/or agroforestry. There’s no way that 10% of Hawaii’s farmland should be dedicated exclusively to any one crop. We should decrease the spacing of pongamia trees per acre to accommodate row crops or cattle grazing on that same land.

By decreasing the tree density per acre, pongamia can be "intercropped" with row crops or cattle

By decreasing the tree density per acre, pongamia can be “intercropped” with row crops or cattle

To allow for intercropping or cows, we estimate that we’ll have to reduce the number of trees per acre by 40%. This means that each tree will have to be even more productive. Assuming a 40% reduction in tree density per acre, as well as the ability to convert the pongamia shells into oil, we’ll have to produce 140 kgs of seed pods per year per tree to make 1,470 gallons of oil per acre per year (1,470 gallons per acre X 120,000 acres [10% of Hawaii’s farmland] = 4.2 million barrels of oil [10% of Hawaii’s current annual petroleum usage]).

140 kgs of seed pods per tree annually is more than double what we are currently forecasting (60 kgs).  Hence why the 10-10 Plan is ambitious. But it’s not undoable. Here’s a picture of a mature 25’X25’ pongamia tree in Australia. This is about the size of a tree that we’d expect at maturity in our Hawaii fields. This tree produces about 200 kgs of seed pods annually.

A pongamia tree full of seed pods (estimated 200 kgs)

A pongamia tree full of seed pods (estimated 200 kgs)

 

Not all of our trees, every year, will produce this prolifically, but we believe that over time, with proper agronomy and tree selection and breeding, pongamia is capable of producing 140 kgs of seed pods per tree per year.

We understand why HECO hasn’t put much faith into biofuels. They’ve gone down the road with a few other promising biofuels projects, only to see them flounder. We didn’t come up with the 10-10 Plan as some PR stunt. We did it to show that biofuels should still be in the conversation, and we’ll let our trees do the talking for us.

 

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