A rendering of Phycal Hawaii's pilot algae farm in Wahiawa.

No EIS required: Algae oil farm gets closer to breaking ground for 30-acre Wahiawa facility

WAHIAWA—Phycal Hawaii R&D is moving forward with plans to build an approximately 30-acre algae farm on currently unused Del Monte pineapple fields north of Wahiawa. The company, which currently has an algae farm in Ohio and a research laboratory in St. Louis, will be cultivating and extracting algae oil to convert into biofuel as well as refine into drop-in replacements for diesel, jet fuel, and feedstock for other bioproducts. As the multi-million dollar project moves forward, Central Oahu residents still have concerns about odor the facility may cause, the use of Oahu’s ag lands for other uses than food, and the algae’s potential effects on the environment. Currently, however, Phycal is not required to publish an Environmental Impact Statement because a significant effect on the environment has not been established.

The Wahiawa farm, an aquaculture project that is expected to cost approximately $50 million ($24 million coming from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act), will be a pilot facility for an estimated two years to explore the methods of farming and processing the algae oil into biofuel. It is Phycal’s ultimate goal is to eventually expand into a commercial operation that capitalizes on the efficiency of algae. According to Andrew Twomey, president of Phycal Hawaii, algae produces 10 times more oil per unit of weight than any other plant.

The company originally estimated October 2010 as the earliest date for construction, but ground breaking has now been pushed back to April 2011, according to Guy Ontai of Alakai Construction and Engineering, which has been sub-contracted to assist with program management on the pilot project.

On November 16, a hearing on the conditional use permits for the project was held at the Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting.

Ontai told The Hawaii Independent that while the process is moving forward, Phycal is still awaiting approval from the State Department of Agriculture for the use of a particular species of algae. The species Phycal plans on cultivating and extracting at the Wahiawa facility is a native, naturally occurring strain in Hawaii, according to Ontai. However, anytime algae is imported to the islands, even if it is native, permits are required.

“We are on track but delayed slightly because the permitting process has been delayed,” Ontai said.

Concerns raised earlier this year at Wahiawa Neighborhood Board meetings included the possibility of unpleasant odors emitted by the processing facility. Residents also inquired about the threat of algae blooms caused by high nutrient water, which can contribute to reducing sunlight and oxygen in the ocean and result in the death of coral reefs.

In response, Phycal’s representatives said that the algae they plan on using absorbs all nutrients in the water, and because there is no nearby stream to carry water to the ocean, there is no threat of algae bloom to Hawaii’s reefs.

Currently, Phycal’s word is the only assurance Wahiawa residents have.

“At this particular junction we are not required to publish an EIS [Environmental Impact Statement],” Ontai last week.

The questions “why Hawaii?” and “why here?” resonated with Wahiawa residents, opposed to the project, who were concerned that Phycal could end up using thousands of acres of Oahu’s agricultural land if the facility were to expand.

Ontai pointed to the recent construction of a wind farm in nearby Kahuku that will provide clean energy from 12 turbines on 575 acres of land and said that clean energy companies come to Hawaii because they benefit from the islands’ tropical climate and isolation.

Proponents of algae farming for biofuel say it’s a sustainable practice that can fit in with Hawaii’s ecology.

“Unlike making ethanol from corn, which takes months to process, algae matures in four days,” Twomey said. “The oil is like vegetable oil and can be refined into a number of products including bio diesel for power generation, and can be refined by big companies like Tesoro to be used for jet fuel.”

Twomey said that because of Hawaii’s temperature, sunlight, and availability of currently unused land, the island is the perfect place for algae farming. Twomey also noted that Oahu is a fitting place to produce biofuel as “the cost of energy in Hawaii is high because the state imports its oil, so there is a market here for locally produced biofuel.”

The Oahu facility will include shallow trenches about 15 centimeters deep for cultivating the algae, a processing building for oil extraction, an anaerobic digester for conversion of biomass to methane gas, and a water treatment area. The facility will produce algae oil to complete technical qualification as a commercial product and the company intends to confirm their ability to produce at an acceptable cost.

According to Oilgae.com, micro-algae are the fastest growing photosynthesizing unicellular organisms and can complete an entire growing cycle every few days. Some algae species have high oil content, up to 60 percent oil by weight, and can produce up to 15,000 gallons of oil per acre per year under optimum conditions. Algae’s high yield is one of the main reasons why algae is considered as feedstock for oil.

According to the U.S. Energy Administration, Petroleum provides nearly nine-tenths of all the energy consumed in Hawaii. Petroleum-fired power plants supply more than three-fourths of Hawaii’s electricity generation. Hawaii’s Clean Energy Initiative establishes clear targets for both State and local utilities development and the use of renewable energy.

“With alternative energy, I think you get the biggest bang for your buck in an isolated place like Hawaii,” Ontai said.

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