From Inside the Pipeline: Energy & Ag in Hawaii

By Marie O’Grady, Elemental Excelerator Communications Coordinator

Exhaust poured from the truck as it came to a grinding halt at the base of a conveyor belt, delivering Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company’s last cane harvest, symbolizing the end of an era in Hawaii. As happened in Puerto Rico and Trinidad & Tobago, growing sugar in Hawaii was no longer profitable.

In early 2016, Alexander & Baldwin (A&B), the fourth largest land owner in Hawaii, announced the close of Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company (HC&S), the state’s last large-scale sugar plantation. Over the years, HC&S had faced controversies around water, pesticides, and field burning, and in 2015, the company incurred a $30 million operating loss.

Alexander & Baldwin announced in early 2016 that all 36,000 acres of former HC&S land would be transitioned to diversified agriculture, such as energy crops, agroforestry, livestock, diversified food crops, and orchard crops. Last month, A&B announced a new partnership with TerViva to cultivate pongamia on 250 acres of former plantation land.

EEx TerViva - orchard - 1

We believe pongamia can help diversify agriculture production on Maui while also potentially addressing our community’s need for renewable fuels. Our former sugar lands provide a great opportunity to grow more energy crops locally as they are ideally suited for large scale cultivation and mechanical harvesting.” – A&B President & CEO, Chris Benjamin

TerViva was the first ag company to join Elemental Excelerator’s portfolio in 2014. As part of their demonstration project, they are growing more than 200 acres of pongamia trees on Oahu and Maui. The oil extracted from pongamia seeds is well suited for industrial applications such as biopesticides, lubricants, chemicals, and fuels – and the residual seed cake shows promise as a feed supplement for beef cattle. Compared to soy, pongamia requires only 25 percent of the chemical and water inputs. One acre of pongamia produces 10 times more oil and 3 times more protein rich seed cake than one acre of soybeans.

EEx TerViva 3

This project is not only transformational for TerViva (it’s their first orchard in the region), but it’s also transformational for Hawaii.

  • Local farmers and agribusinesses are a critical source of economic stability for rural economies, through jobs and direct and indirect spending. TerViva is steadily growing its Hawaii-based team, and the company supports two local nurseries and a handful of contractors.
  • Pongamia is able to grow on marginal agricultural land that is not suitable for other crops. This is ideal for a place like Hawaii where the soil, which once provided resources for thousands of acres of sugarcane and pineapple, has been largely stripped of key nutrients.
  • Biofuel and biomass play a role in Hawaii’s transformation to clean energy, providing firm, dispatchable power. Hawaiian Electric’s December 2016 Power Supply Improvement Plan outlines how the utility plans to utilize biofuels in power plants to replace oil as a fuel source.

There is a growing trend in the number of new agtech companies mature enough for a demonstration project, as evidenced in Elemental Excelerator’s pipeline of applicants:

  • Since 2014, EEx had added four other agriculture startups to the portfolio of 53 startups. These companies are working to increase local beef production, increase crop yields, and help small farmers use data to reduce water usage.
  • Over the last few years, EEx has also seen a dramatic increase in applications from ag startups. This year, 10 percent of the companies who took the first step to apply were agriculture-related. That’s twice as many as last year!

After Monsanto acquired the Climate Corporation in 2013, ag tech gained significant attention. In 2014 alone, investments in ag tech grew 170%. Most innovation was focused in the areas of biotechnology and seed genetics. Today, subsectors include bioenergy, sustainable protein, decision support tech, soil & crop tech, advanced imaging & data analytics, and many others. Investment and innovation are no longer limited to players in the agriculture sector. Moreover, as concern grows over droughts, weather fluctuations, the cost of farm labor, and competition with international markets, key players such as farmers, agro-businesses, and landowners are searching for ways to grow smarter.


Elemental Excelerator

Elemental Excelerator helps startups change the world, one community at a time. Each year, they find 12-15 companies that best fit their mission and fund each company up to $1 million to improve systems that impact peoples lives: energy, water, agriculture, and transportation. To date, Elemental Excelerator (EEx) has awarded over $20 million to more than 50 companies. What makes EEx unique? They co-fund, co-design, and co-develop projects and strategies that improve infrastructure and sustainably enhance communities. The program is funded by a diverse coalition of utility partners, corporate partners, the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Department of Energy, state government, and philanthropic organizations, and is structured as a non-profit created in collaboration with Emerson Collective.


Related articles:

2015 State Ag Land Use Baseline Data, Hawaii Department of Agriculture

AgTech Is The New Queen Of Green, TechCrunch

Cultivating Ag Tech: 5 Trends Shaping The Future of Agriculture, CB Insights

Hawaii’s Last Sugar Plantation Finishes Its Final Harvest, NBC

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 (, Hawaiian Electric (“HECO”) recently presented its strategic goals for Hawaii’s energy future ( 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

Example pyrolysis process, courtesy of


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.


Island Independence

Island Independence

For some time now, islands have ben romanticized in human culture, placed at the apex of potential vacation destinations, often with good reason.


Islands present the opportunity to disconnect oneself from the familiar, culturally, geographically or otherwise. Those lucky enough to visit an island while on holiday will likely be impressed by any number of environmental, culinary or adventurous delights. But what of the machinery and infrastructure that maintain such idyllic locales, and the people who live there? With this blog post I will pull back the curtain, and provide a glimpse of what it takes to keep an island paradise running from an energy standpoint, using Hawai’i as a case study.

HIFirst, some quick, pertinent facts about Hawai’i. As of 2012, census data indicate there are a little less than 1.4 million people living in the state; with ~70% residing in the city of Honolulu on the Island of Oahu. All told, Hawai’i contains 6,422 square miles of land – the Island of Hawai’i makes up over half, at 4,028 mi2 – spread out over an archipelago of 130 islands that stretches over 1,500 miles. At ~2,400 miles from North America, the closest continent, Hawai’i is the most isolated population center on Earth.

Powering a population of this scale and geography is a serious undertaking, and requires substantial energy supplies and infrastructure. There is no appreciable production of fossil fuel energy in Hawai’i, thus 94% of all Hawai’i’s energy is imported. The Hawai’i Electric Company and its subsidiaries provide 95% of the electricity used by the state’s residents; a little over 73% of this electricity is generated from burning oil. This pie chart provides further information on energy consumption based upon the sector of the end-user:

HI Chart

Needless to say, if there was an interruption in this supply, the effects on the Hawai’ian economy could be devastating. In the interest of brevity, and not depressing readers of this post, I won’t use space here to catalog the potential for catastrophic environmental impacts associated with transporting oil.

In recognition of this dependence on imported energy and environmental hazard, Hawai’i has passed legislation mandating that 40% of all electricity and natural gas shall be generated from renewable sources that can be produced on the Islands (Hawai’i Revised Statutes §269-92 Renewable portfolio standards (a)(4)). This action sets the state on a path toward a future where the Islands of Hawai’i could become energy independent.

The transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy supplies is already underway. Hawai’i currently produces ~11% of its electricity from renewable sources, including biofuels, geothermal, solar, and wind among others. This percentage is primed to increase substantially, as entrepreneurs and established companies alike recognize the market opportunity. HAWAI’IGAS, which supplies synthetic natural gas and propane to varied customers throughout Hawai’i, operates a pilot plant that converts up to 1 million gallons of renewable feedstocks such as used cooking oil into natural gas; this pilot plant is slated for expansion. Pacific Biodiesel got started producing biodiesel so early that they were able to buy the domain name BdslPacific Biodiesel was conceived in 1995 with a single facility that converted used cooking oil into biodiesel. Since then they have successfully built 12 production facilities on the mainland US and Japan, and continue to grow: the company’s newest venture is Big Island Biodiesel, a plant able to produce 5.5 million gallons of biodiesel per year.

Significant progress has been made incorporating increasing quantities of renewable energy and fuels into the portfolio of Hawai’i, but there is more to be done: the State’s energy plan aims to have an agriculture industry that will be able to provide 350 million gallons of biofuels by 2025. TerViva, the company that I work for, is currently planning for the deployment of its first commercial pongamia orchard in Hawai’i. Pongamia trees produce a bountiful seed crop; when crushed, the seeds yield oil that is well suited for conversion to biodiesel and natural gas, among other products. By producing a robust biofuel feedstock, TerViva and other industry leaders like Pacific Biodiesel and HAWAI’IGAS will help Hawai’i make progress down the road to an independent future, free from the constraints of imported oil.