Pacific West Energy has been struggling for 10 years to build a biomass plant on Kauai. Now, it’s owner says, the local company could be on the verge of construction.

“Three times before, the pieces were very close,” William Maloney, president and chief executive officer of Pacific West Energy told Civil Beat. “Again, the pieces are very close.”

At a meeting in Honolulu on Wednesday, Maloney updated the state agency tasked with aiding the development of diversified agriculture about his project. The state board reacted with a mix of support and skepticism, raising questions about the potential cost of the energy for Kauai’s ratepayers.

The latter has become a hot button issue with Hawaiian Electric Co., which owns the electric utilities on Oahu, Maui and the Big Island. The utility recently signed contracts with two biofuels companies at undisclosed costs. The contracts are believed to carry a substantial premium over the cost of petroleum. The contracts have also raised eyebrows because the proposed technology is pre-commercial and the companies have yet to produce the fuel.

Pacific West Energy plans to use traditional biomass technology that was widespread during Hawaii’s sugarcane era. Agricultural products are burned to produce steam, which turns a turbine to produce electricity. With the newer biofuel technologies, oil is extracted from ag products and can be used as drop-in fuel in the utilities’ generators.

Maloney said that the company has broken the project into two stages. The first would use biomass from feedstocks such as eucalyptus trees and various grasses. In the second stage, the company hopes to produce ethanol from sugarcane.

Maloney’s goal is to have the project up by 2013 and he says one thing that’s changed is the company has received a $30 million equity pledge from an undisclosed investor. Pacific West still hasn’t secured land for the project, but hopes to use Gay and Robinson’s 20-acre sugar mill site. The company is also looking for 5,000 to 7,000 of acres of land where crops could be grown, either by farmers already on the land or by Pacific West Energy.

Several years ago, the company had hoped to produce ethanol from sugarcane, but Maloney said that the technology wasn’t ready. Second-generation technologies for biofuels have yet to be commercialized, something that is causing skepticism with Hawaiian Electric’s recent biofuel contracts.

“My opinion is that HECO is signing contracts for projects that may never happen,” Maloney said.

Asked if he responded to HECO’s request for proposals, Maloney said “I wasn’t going to participate in a fantasy RFP.”

Pacific West Energy still needs to negotiate a contract with the Kauai Island Utility Cooperative.

While HECO has moved more aggressively in trying to cultivate the local biofuels market, the Kauai Island Utility Cooperative has been more circumspect.

Brad Rockwell, production manager, of KIUC, said that the utility had yet to see a proposal from Pacific West that involved the projected price of the energy. He did not say what price the utility would be willing to pay for the fuel. KIUC is striving to achieve 50 percent renewable energy by 2023.

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