Category Archives: Big Island

Pacific Biodiesel: Is Keaau Plant Actually Sustainable?

Pacific Biodiesel in Kea‘au has just been certified sustainable – the first biodiesel plant in the U.S. to be granted such a certificate – and that’s significant.

The plant opened using primarily waste cooking oil, and that cooking oil has been financing the plant. Now, it’s built. We don’t have to grow, say, palm trees and try to utilize the palm oil to build a plant and make that work out. The plant is already up and running.

All we need to do now is supply a product, whatever it may be. This gives us the opportunity to bring in other products and try them out as biofuels.

This is great news.

From the New York Times:

Biofuels Plant in Hawaii Is First to Be Certified as Sustainable

KEAAU, Hawaii — The trucks roll in and out of the plant at a business park nestled near papaya farms and a forest preserve on the Big Island here, an operation that transforms waste cooking oils, animal fats, fruit and seeds into biodiesel fuel, nearly 13,000 gallons a day.

Owned by Pacific Biodiesel, an industry pioneer, the plant was designed with an eye toward conserving water and energy and avoiding environmental harm.

But after about $20 million and four years of operation, a central question about the plant, and the industry as a whole, has persisted: Do biofuels ultimately reduce carbon emissions?

“We’re worried that the efforts to ramp up our use of biofuels are actually doing a lot of damage and digging the climate hole deeper,” said Jonathan Lewis, a lawyer focused on climate change at the Clean Air Task Force.

Now, the biodiesel industry’s backers say they have an answer, at least for this modest plant….

Read the rest

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PUC Testimony & HIEC Proposes Alternative Power Generation Plan

This is video of Marco Mangelsdorf of the Hawaii Island Energy Cooperative (HIEC) testifying at the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission on February 9, 2016.

Below the video is the HIEC’s just-released alternative power generation plan, which would move the Big Island faster and cheaper toward cost-effective clean energies and reach close to 100 percent renewable years before the state’s 2045 target date.

(HILO, HAWAII, FEBRUARY 10, 2016)—Hawaii Island Energy Cooperative (HIEC) today released its alternative power generation plan that would move the Big Island faster and cheaper toward cost-effective clean energies and reach close to 100 percent renewable years before the state’s 2045 target date.

The HIEC plan, based on a new analysis of the island’s existing resources and estimates of potential new solar, wind and energy storage resources, presents a less expensive and cleaner alternative to previous plans.

“We are very excited to be able to propose a compelling, practical and doable plan that would accelerate our island’s clean energy transformation in a way that would yield significant benefits for the more than 83,000 electric customers here,” noted HIEC director and spokesperson Marco Mangelsdorf.

According to Mangelsdorf, “By building on the successes achieved by Kauai Island Utility Cooperative to integrate high levels of cost-effective solar PV into the grid while adding just the right amount of storage to ensure system stability and reliability, HIEC would be better able to ensure a lower-cost, more balanced power supply portfolio.”

Through its analysis HIEC has developed a plan that includes:

No new fossil fuel generation

  • With the abundant availability of cost-effective renewable energy resources, there’s no need for any additional petroleum-based generation.
  • Any fossil fuel substitutions would be based on near-term cost advantages without requiring costly infrastructure improvements.

No liquefied natural gas infrastructure or long-term reliance on fossil generation

  • Alternative plan does not use LNG.
  • Opportunity fuels such as propane used for lower short-term cost savings with low conversion investments and quick paybacks.

Continued expansion of roof-top solar

  • Investment in battery and pumped storage would allow for additional roof-top solar with fewer technical concerns about system reliability.
  • Utility scale storage would avoid daytime curtailment and move excess roof-top generation to night time peaks.

Competitively priced, cost-effective utility-scale solar PV and wind

  • Utility-scale renewable generation, using Hawaii Island’s abundant solar and wind resources, would replace continued reliance on fossil generation.
  • Early retirement of fossil generation would occur as new renewables come on line.

Capital expenditures would be less compared to the current or future investor-owned utility model

  • Lower cost of capital due to non-profit status.

Lower cost solar and wind resources would replace LNG conversion costs. Greater efficiencies in overall operations

  • Coordinated quick response dispatch would back utility and roof-top solar generation with fossil units, thereby firming variable output for system stability.
  • Ability to integrate new low cost renewables as technologies and appropriate smart grid investments improve efficiencies.

Whether, where and when more geothermal energy will be brought on line to be left to the membership and democratically-elected board of the fully operational cooperative

In the Hawaiian Electric Industries-NextEra Energy merger proceedings now being held by the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission,  NextEra has asserted that the primary question the Commission should ask itself is whether Hawaiian Electric ratepayers and the State of Hawaii would be better off with or without the sale going through.

HIEC has argued that the Commission should consider the merits of the cooperative ownership model for Hawaii Island.

Noted HIEC president Richard Ha, “Credibility, purpose and a focus on how to best serve and benefit the island’s 195,000 residents is what this cooperative is all about.  HIEC’s alternative power generation plan provides an important basis to establish that a cooperative does what its members want, not what is in the best interest of shareholders.  We are committed to a path to the island’s renewable energy future that will get us faster and cheaper to where we all want to go—an economy based on more affordable electricity and an environment that’s cared for.”

About Hawaii Island Energy Cooperative

HIEC is a non-profit cooperative association that seeks to establish a member-owned electric utility and encourage non-petroleum-based transportation for Hawaii Island. HIEC presents a unique opportunity for all electricity consumers to “Own the Power.” For more information, visit www.hiec.coop. HIEC is on Facebook and Twitter @HiEnergyCoop 

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Is Mauna Kea Really Sacred?

Peter Apo, Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustee, recently talked about something that really struck me: He said the claim that the whole of Mauna Kea is sacred cannot be validated.

One thing that had been puzzling him, he says, is that in previous cultural clashes here in Hawai‘i, scholars always participated – but this time they were silent.

“With the TMT, there was this tremendous silence,” he said. “No one was speaking out.” So, he said, he did his own research, consulting with 12 or 13 leading scholars on the topic.

Cultural claims, he said, are validated three ways: by archaeology, oral tradition (“such as the Kumulipo”), or through present-day scholars.

“And the litmus test is there has to be a historical basis for that belief system or practice,” he said. “You have to show it was exercised in the past.  And you have to have a pattern of frequency. None of that was present, at least in my foray in the research.”

“Long story short,” he says, “the claim [of the entire mountain being sacred] could not be validated.”

He write about this in more detail at Let There Be Light on the TMT at Civil Beat:

This research has led me to some conclusions. First, there are indeed places on Mauna Kea that are sacred. These are places where Hawaiians have continuously participated in traditional and customary practices; so there are unquestionably specific geo-cultural sites on Mauna Kea that are protected, and the practices that are associated with these sites meet all the defining criteria of being traditional and customary.

But the extension of sacredness to the entire mountain and the air column above it gives rise to questions about how much cultural validation there is for the idea that this pre-empts any and all other uses of the mountain.

I found no documentation indicating that Mauna Kea, as a whole, is sacred. I could not find any reference to any blanket of sacredness over the entire mountain and the air column in any of the usual sources of validation — not even in the Kumulipo Hawaiian creation-origin chant, or in the writings of Native Hawaiian historians of the 19th century like Samuel Kamakau, David Malo, John Papa ‘I‘i and Kepelino.

Beyond the blanket-of-sacredness claim, there is nothing else on record to suggest any validated sacred places would be disturbed by the construction or operation of the TMT.

Validated sacred places include the peaks of Pu‘u o Kūkahau‘ula, Pu‘u Poli‘ahu and Pu‘u Lilinoe, Lake Waiau, and various heiau (temples), ‘ahu (altars), ana (caves), lua kā ko‘i (quarries), and ilina (burials).

In fact, I believe the decision about the TMT’s location was made to ensure that no sacred site was violated, nor access to any sacred site impeded. The telescope was also sited below the summit to minimize its visual obtrusiveness. Read the rest

This rings very true to me.

My Pop helped to bulldoze the road to the summit of Mauna Kea back in about 1964, and when I think back to that time, none of my Hawaiian relatives at Maku‘u ever said one word against it. No one ever even hinted it was against religious and cultural practices. I don’t remember our relatives ever telling us that the mountain was forbidden territory.

Pop was proud of what he was doing, and my brother Robert used to fuel up and service his bulldozer.

Pop

See the name at the top of the TD 30? That’s my dad. (I’m a junior.) This picture of my Pop operating his bulldozer on the summit of Mauna Kea is from a PBS clip that you can see here.

There was no mention of anyone up on the mountain protesting when Pop was building the road, because there wasn’t anybody protesting. There was never any feeling he was doing anything against the culture. There was no discussion about it, period.

Peter Apo said something that makes so much sense to me:

“The TMT presents probably the greatest opportunity – the greatest cultural opportunity, religious opportunity – that we will ever have to do the one thing that is at the center of every cultural group. That is, search for the ancestors. Our story of creation begins with the night of Pō, with the darkness. I’m assuming that at some point in time, with projects like the TMT, we will actually be able to go back and find the Night of Pō. I cannot think of anything more significant than that.”

I agree, and I don’t think it was a bad thing that Pop helped build that road. We humans are always trying to climb up to the top of a mountain to see what’s on the other side. I’m curious to see back in time.

My concern is that we are shutting off the opportunity to possibly learn the answer to the greatest question mankind ever asked: “I wonder what’s on the other side?”

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Guest Post: Rat Lungworm Disease in Hawai‘i

  • Did you know that 90 percent of the confirmed Rat Lungworm cases in Hawai‘i are found in people from East Hawai‘i?
  • That you should remove lettuce leaves by hand before washing them, not chop them off the core? (That one stopped me, careful me, in my tracks.)

We have a guest post today written by Marlena Castro Dixon, M.S., an epidemiological specialist with the Hawai‘i State Department of Health, Hawaii District Health office.

Marlena was born and raised in Hilo and received her education from the University of New Mexico. She works for the Disease Outbreak Control Division, Disease Investigation Branch.

She’s well qualified to tell us about Rat Lungworm disease, which, of course, is especially prevalent here on the Big Island. She tells us what it is, how it happens, and especially how to prevent it.

Rat Lungworm Disease in Hawai‘i

by Marlene Castro Dixon, M.S.

One of the benefits of living in Hawaii’s great climate is having access to fresh produce year-round. However, a rare disease called Angiostrongyliasis or Rat Lungworm Disease (RLWD) has gained the attention of the community, especially on the Big Island. The severity and symptoms of Rat Lungworm disease varies from person to person and can be a very devastating illness to the patient and their families.

RLWD can affect anyone — residents, farmers, visitors, even other animals such as dogs. All face the risk, especially if they are not aware of this illness. Prevention is crucial, so that all can enjoy our local produce without being infected with the Rat Lungworm. RLWD cannot be passed from human to human, making prevention crucial.

There are lots of facts to know, but understanding how this disease transmits from rats and other vectors to humans is important. RLWD is caused by a parasite, Angiostrongylus cantonensis. Adult worms reside in the lungs of rats, hence the name “Rat Lungworm.” Infected rats pass the larvae in their feces which are then passed onto hosts such as slugs, snails, fresh water prawns, crabs, flatworms, frogs and other vectors by consuming the infected feces. Humans can become infected when they eat raw produce containing slugs or snails or eat undercooked fresh water shrimp or crab, other infected vectors or contaminated water.

Once consumed by a human, the larvae cannot finish their lifecycle. The parasites invade the nervous system and the brain tissue, causing specific neurologic symptoms depending on where in the brain they migrate. Neurologic symptoms such as parasthesia, hyperesthesia (severe sensitivity to the touch) skin pain, sensitivity or numbness, and photophobia subside as initial damage is done by the migration of the worms.

Secondary damage is done by the inflammatory response to the presence of dead and dying worms. This inflammatory response causes swelling of the protective covering of the brain and the spinal cord, a condition known as Eosinophilic Meningitis. As previously mentioned, symptoms will vary from person to person, making Angiostrongyliasis or Rat Lungworm disease very difficult to diagnose.

Diagnosis of the disease can be difficult and involves an extensive look at the patient’s food history and possible environmental exposures. Currently, the only way to test and confirm a case of RLWD is through a spinal tap. Due to its invasive nature, not all patients come in for testing. As a result, some potentially infected patients are not seeking a proper diagnosis, which has contributed to the low number of confirmed cases.

Between 2007 and 2014, Hawaii has had 42 confirmed cases of RLWD. However, the Big Island of Hawaii, particularly the east side, is disproportionately affected by Rat Lungworm Disease, accounting for approximately 90% of these cases. Because of this, the Department of Health (DOH) partners with other agencies to work on educating the public in various ways to be sure there is public awareness, allowing residents and visitors to enjoy our local produce safely.

The DOH has also worked on things like testing for RLWD locally. The DOH can now test for RLWD here in Hawaii, instead of having to send specimens to the CDC, enabling physicians to make a diagnosis and treat the patient earlier. Despite our efforts, we still have a long way to go.

Fortunately, there are precautions that can prevent transmission of the disease. Always carefully rinse fresh produce with potable water, and discard any that looks like it may have the presence of slugs or snails. It’s easier than you might think to miss a tiny creature in the folds of a leafy vegetable. For leafy greens, open up, peel off each leaf (do not chop off the core), and rinse each leaf one by one to the base of the stems. Visually inspect the produce while rinsing. Use a steady stream of water as there currently is no product or solution to wash your produce that will kill this parasite.

Cooking vegetables will kill the parasite. Boil snails, freshwater prawns, crabs and frogs for at least 3-5 minutes. Never handle slugs and snails with your bare hands. Control the slugs and snails on your property as well as the rodent population. Proper filtering and maintenance of catchment tanks and a proper cover is important for prevention as the parasite can survive in water. Prevent children from putting objects in their mouths, especially when playing outside. Bring food and water dishes for your pets indoors at night if possible.

Whether visiting or living in Hawaii, enjoy the local food, but know the exposure risks and keep in mind that there are preventative measures that can prevent a devastating disease from harming you and your family.

For more information, please visit:
Angiostrongyliasis, or ANGIOSTRONGYLIASIS (RAT LUNGWORM)

or call 808-586-4586.
For details on slug and snail control visit: Control and management of slug and snail vectors, with special reference to species in Hawaii.

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Could Big Island Feed All Its People Using Traditional Methods?

Sometimes, here on the Big Island, we hear someone say this:

“The Big Island used to feed a population about this size by farming without the use of GMOs, pesticides, and other farming aids, and we can do it again.”

But could we? We examined this from several angles. 

Dr. Bruce Mathews, interim dean of the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo’s College of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resources, says research shows that in pre-Western contact times, most Hawai‘i Island residents spent most of their days on activities related to agriculture. He says this would be a big shock if we tried to return to a subsistence type of lifestyle.

“I’ve seen a lot of times at the College of Agriculture where people want to spend a day in the field, doing agricultural things, and they end up saying, Gosh, I’ve never worked so hard in my life.”

“It sounds very, very challenging,” he says, “just in terms of the amount of labor to grow all that food without mechanization and without fertilizers. I don’t know how many people today really want to spend a lot of time on drudgery labor. Going in the forest to clear, digging holes, sticking mulch inside them, waiting awhile for everything to rot, and to transplant.”

He says it would be even more challenging these days, because now we have imported diseases, pests, and other invasives.

“I’m okay if people don’t want to use GMOs and chemicals, but I’d want to know who’s going to do all the labor,” he says. “Who’s going to pull all the weeds and control all the pests? Because if you’re going to do that naturally, you’re going to have to be out there every day spraying with natural products and pulling weeds all the time. I think it’s delusional, unless everybody’s going to only be involved with agriculture and there’s no other forms of livelihood.”

Jeff Melrose, who authored the Hawai‘i County Food Self-Sufficiency Baseline Study 2012, agrees about the tremendous amount of work it would entail.

“‘Back in the day,’ everybody played a part in the farming and feeding process,” he says. “We didn’t have students, we didn’t have scientists, we didn’t have retail workers; none of the specialization we have today.” He points out that means no one would have time to work in our hospitals; our ancestors kept sick people at home, wrapped in poultices, and they died much younger than people do today. “Everybody had to be involved in this process of feeding, catching, storing, preserving, whatever.”

“There are certainly some people today that aspire to be more self-reliant and live off the land, and fish and hunt, and do,” he says. “They also still go to town and do what they gotta do, and that’s fine. But it’s not for everybody.”

There’s also the practical matter that in pre-contact days, Hawaiians had a very different system of land use. “We have [private] land ownership now,” says Mathews, “and we don’t have a king mandating what people should do and grow. You don’t have a king to say, ‘This ahupua‘a shall be managed as one big contiguous unit.’”

Mathews points out that, initially, Hawaiians cultivated the most fertile Big Island valleys – Waipi‘o, Waimanu, and Pololu – and then when the population grew larger and they needed to feed more people, they needed other areas to cultivate.

They sought out “sweet spots” in terms of rainfall, which turn out to be places with about 50 to 60 inches of rain per year. This is enough that the soil is broken down and will have sufficient nutrients to sustain good crop growth, but not so much that it leeches the nutrients out of the soil. Much less rainfall than that, though, and the crops fail. This is what led them to develop the Kohala Field System. (In contrast, Kauai’s population never got that large, so that island never needed to develop its uplands and only farmed its valleys.)

“[Ecologist] Peter Vitousek did plenty of work looking at whether the Big Island’s [field] systems were really sustainable, and his work questioned that,” says Mathews. “Because when there were periods of drought the yields were low, and that put tremendous pressures on the population. Furthermore, when he looked at soil samples underneath the rock walls as compared to the former fields themselves, he found that despite all the best practices the native Hawaiians were using, be it fallows and mulching, etc., they were still depleting the soil fertility. So if Hawaiians hadn’t had contact with Western society, that would have really put a lot of pressure on those lands.”

Eventually, Mathews says, that system, too, would have broken down. Just as the population had outgrown its system of cultivating food in the valleys, they too were in the process of outgrowing their field system of agriculture. What would have happened next?

(As an aside, anthropologists tell us that in pre-contact times, you’d have to have good relationships with people that have food for when times of drought came or upland crops failed, or else be able to exert power for trading purposes. There’s evidence that this island had very severe droughts.

Some anthropologists think it makes sense, therefore, that the strongest political power – Kamehameha, the only chief to unite the islands – emerged on Hawai‘i Island. If you’re the leader of a place that’s under stress for food and security, you have to be tougher politically and militarily.)

Because we don’t have mineable sources of fertilizer on the Big Island, says Mathews, trying to farm without it would come down to trying to concentrate animal waste. And there’s science behind that.

“Generally in modern times people rely on organic methods, but they are usually robbing Peter to pay Paul,” he says. “You’ve got the organic farmer going down to a livestock enterprise and getting the manure and putting it in their garden, but those nutrients came from somewhere else. Eventually those systems where those nutrients are being captured, even if they rely on biological nitrogen fixation for nitrogen, they begin to collapse because they’re removing the phosphorous, the potassium and eventually the nitrogen fixation. Biologically, nitrogen fixation doesn’t work so well when the soil becomes depleted of phosphorus and potassium.”

“We could grow mulch crops like nitrogen-fixing trees,” he says, “and use them for mulches to release nitrogen and nutrients to the soil for the crops to grow in between them. But one of the dilemmas with that is that the microbes don’t always release the nutrients in synchrony with what the plant needs and when the plant needs it. And if you get a heavy rainfall, it just washes everything out and then you’re stuck. If you have fertilizer, you can go out there and correct it immediately.”

We have also diverted, changed and blocked many of the old waterways. “In many of those old ahupua‘a in the Kohala area, the water was diverted long ago and the streams and water conveyance systems have dried up,” he says. “It would take massive reengineering and restoration, and even then, there’s been some climate change. It would be challenging.”

Fishing made up a large part of the traditional, pre-Western diet. Could that work again on a large sale?

Not anytime soon, says Mathews. “When you talk to native Hawaiians and others who fish, a lot of our fisheries are overfished and depleted. The near-shore fisheries are really in bad shape. Everybody tells me they aren’t in anywhere near as good a shape as they were a hundred years ago.”

On a practical level, Melrose points out that our contact with the outside world has dramatically changed who we are.

“If you were to say, ‘Let’s just eat what we grow,’ well, we have a very seasonal and limited body of products that we grow,” he says. “I can just see your kid with his iPhone. ‘No, Mom, not ulu again.’ ‘Sweet potatoes, AGAIN?’ ‘Poi again?!’”

“We have evolved substantially into a much more discerning people,” he says. “You’d have to change fundamentally who everybody is.”

The bottom line, according to Mathews: Conditions have changed drastically since those pre-Western contact days, and if for some reason we were cut off from the U.S. Mainland, we’d have to eat a lot of wild pig and Parker Ranch cattle for awhile while we figured out what we were going to do.

“I think there’s a lot of romance in Hawai‘i,” he says. “A lot of Eden-like thinking that it was so good back then, back in the day.”

Mathews, who has children in high school, says he thinks it’s “a little bit tragic” that sustainability from an agricultural standpoint is not taught better in Hawai‘i’s school system. He sees a bias against new and modern technologies in general, and a general assumption that all new things are bad without evaluating them on a case-by-case basis.

“They really don’t get into how sustainable we are now and how sustainable it was in the past,” he says, “and I wish the schools would teach sustainability science with much deeper thought and understanding.

“I don’t like all new technologies,” he says, “but I think these blanket bans are not good.”

photo: CC BY-SA 3.0 AlaskaDave

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Shale Oil & Gas: The Overhype

Richard Ha writes:

Art Berman says we don’t have as much shale oil and gas as we think we do. He feels that the shale oil and gas sector is largely uneconomic.

The first time I heard Art Berman speak was on a panel discussion at a 2009 Association for the Study of Peak Oil conference. He studied four thousand Barnett shale wells in Texas and found that the average well gave up 72 percent of its production in the first year.

He definitely had a different perspective than an oil company executive panel member, who said that according to his hyperbolic curve calculations, the average well would produce for 22 years.

I knew someone was wrong. I thought that the oil company executive was just blowing smoke, to sell stocks. I imagined that by the end of the 22nd year, the amount of gas production from his gas well would fill a balloon an hour.

Many thousand of wells later, several credible studies from other sources, such as by this Post Carbon Institutes study by David Hughes, support Art Berman’s initial observations.

We need to pay attention to this because we rely on oil for seventy percent of our energy, and this makes Hawai‘i especially vulnerable. It’s much better to be safe than sorry.

The Big Island is lucky to have an alternative to oil and natural gas to make our base power electricity: Geothermal.

As time goes on, and as oil and natural gas prices rise, future generations will have a competitive advantage over the rest of the world. We will be over our geothermal “hot spot” for 500,000 to a million years.

It takes energy to do work. No energy, no work done. But it is the net energy left over from getting the energy that society uses to grow the economy. And since two-thirds of our economy is made up of consumer spending, it boils down to how much extra money the rubbah slippah folks have that will determine the health of our economy.

So Kumu Lehua was right. He asked me: “What about the rest?” 

That is the key question. What about our kupuna on fixed income? The single moms? The working homeless? If they had extra money, they could spend it and everyone would benefit. Farmers are price takers, not price makers, and they would benefit. If the farmers made money, the farmers would farm.

Asking what about the rest will help us with food security. It all boils down to cost. That is to say, what are the combination of things that gives us the best net energy profile? This is more about common sense than rocket science. If we take our time to look for two solutions for every problem and one more just in case, we will find the solutions that make us competitive with the rest of the world.

This, in the final analysis, is about survival and adaptation. And it is about all of us; not just a few of us.

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Kauai Island Utility Co-op Execs To Brief On How They Formed Their Co-Op

Richard Ha writes:

We have invited Dennis Esaki, a founder of Kauai Island Utility Cooperative (KIUC), and David Bissell, CEO of KIUC, to speak to us about how one forms a community-based utility. Having such a utility cooperative here on the Big Island would give us more control over our destiny.

It will be held this Friday, December 19, 11:30 a.m., at the former C. Brewer Executive Center in Wainaku. The event is sponsored by the Big Island Community Coalition, the Hilo Hamakua Coast Development Corporation, and the Hawaii Farmers and Ranchers United. The Ed Olson Trust is providing the Wainaku Executive Center facilities. Please R.S.V.P.

The Kauai Island Utility Cooperative was formed in 2002 when Citizens Communications’ Kauai Electric announced that it was selling the Kaua‘i utility. We have a similar situation right now in that Hawaiian Electric Industries (HEI) recently announced it is selling to NextEra.

NextEra plans to use utility-scale solar, backed up by liquid natural gas (LNG) as a bridge fuel. The average shale oil and gas well lasts only five years, so that model is a concern for Big Island rate payers. (This link is an even more in-depth explanation of how shale oil is massively over-hyped, and analyzes the best data available.) Fortunately, we have geothermal we can use in place of LNG on the Big Island. We have options.

This is not an endorsement of converting to a co-op so much as it is an informational briefing.

Please R.S.V.P. to richard@hamakuasprings.com.

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Maku’u Stories, Part 5: What Uncle Sonny Kamahele Taught Me About Business

Let me tell you something really interesting I learned from my Uncle Sonny Kamahele. He had 20 acres in Maku‘u, in Puna on the Big Island. There was a rare kipuka there with soil that was 10 feet deep, no rocks or anything. There was a spring in one corner of his property.

I was just out of college with an accounting degree and lots of ideas about business. So I looked at his land and wondered if he would lease me 10 acres to grow bananas. I scratched my chin and thought about how I could grow 35,000 pounds per acre on those 10 acres. Maybe 300,000 pounds a year if I took into account turn around space.

And yet on the other 10 acres, Uncle Sonny was making his living with just 10 or 20 hills of watermelons, with maybe four plants on each hill. People would come from miles around to buy his watermelons. It provided him with enough income to support himself and to send money to his wife and son in the Philippines.

Here’s the lesson I learned from him: It’s not about how big your farm is. Your business is successful if it supports your situation. I learned a lot from Uncle Sonny, but I think that’s the most important thing I learned from him.

That’s what I always look at when I visit a farm. Not how big it is, or how much money it makes, but how it operates, and whether it solves the problem it is trying to solve.

Here’s why I’m telling you this right now. We have a real energy problem looming. I think the situation with oil is very serious, and there are definitely going to be winners and losers in the world. We need to position ourselves to be winners, and it’s going to take all of us, big and small.

How are we going to feed Hawai‘i?

Every one of us is going to play a role in it – from the largest farmers to the small folks growing food in their backyard. Do you remember in the plantation camps, especially the Filipino camps, how the yards were always planted with food? Beans, eggplants, the whole thing. I don’t see it so much anymore, but we can do it again.

We are lucky on the Big Island. We’re not crowded and everybody has room to grow food. You know how you can tell we have plenty space? Everybody’s yard is too big to mow! We have the ability to do this.

It’s going to take all of us. It’s not just about any one of us, it’s about all of us, from the biggest to the smallest.

I’m lucky to have had my Uncle Sonny Kamahele to learn from when I was younger. I spent a lot of time with him and I got a real feeling for how he made decisions, which was old style.

His lifestyle was a real connection to the past, too. His lawn and the whole area were always immaculate, practically manicured. He lived pretty close to the old ways with a lot of remnants from the past. His red and green house had stones from down the beach under the pillars, and lumber over the dirt floors. He built beds on those floors and then had five or six lauhala mats on the beds instead of mattresses; old style. There was a redwood water tank.

He listened to the County extension folks, and I learned from that, too – to pay attention to the people who know something.

But one of the most important things I learned was that your business, big or small, is a success if it supports your particular situation.

See also:
Maku‘u Stories, Part 1: My Kamahele Family in Maku’u
Maku‘u Stories, Part 2: Cousin Frank Kamahele
Maku‘u Stories, Part 3: Uncle Sonny
Maku‘u Stories, Part 4: Tutu Meleana & The Puhi

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Guest Post: First Hilo-Hamakua Meeting on Agr & Food Security

I asked Dr. Bruce Mathews, interim dean of the College of Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resource Management (CAFNRM) at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo (UHH), to write a guest post about speaking at the first of our community meetings on agriculture and food security.

Dr. Mathews writes:

Mahalo for inviting me to present an overview of Hawaii’s soil resource base for agriculture from the pre-European contact era to the present during the first part of HHCDC Symposia Series on Agriculture and Food Security.

I found that the speakers during the first session provided a solid overview of the current realities facing our local agriculture from all perspectives (resources, new precision technologies, economics, policies, etc.). I appreciated the candid discussions regarding the growth constraints faced by many crop sectors as long as there is strong import competition from continental-based operations (CBOs) and heavy dependence on imported energy and nutrient inputs for our farms.

At the end of my talk I shared a bit about my concerns regarding what I called sustainability madness and ecological imperialism. Many people are very concerned about local use of agricultural chemicals (mainly synthetic biocides such as pesticides, herbicides, etc.) and GMOs, yet the majority in Hawaii consume foods every day that are imported from CBOs where synthetic biocides and (or) GMOs were used in their production.

No doubt there is quite a bit of not in my back yard (NIMBY) ecological imperialism/ecological hypocrisy going on here and this has implications for local society as a whole.

On the other side of the coin, the best genetic manipulations in the world won’t work for long to support economic yields if we cultivate soils depleted of nutrients, organic matter, and beneficial microbial and faunal balance. The problems of climate change such as drought will only be magnified in such soils.

Yesterday I met with a group of current and former UH Hilo College of Agriculture, Forestry, and Natural Resource Management (CAFNRM) students who had leased some land with relatively good soil to farm but recently gave up the lease after raising several different truck crops. Some of the dilemmas that they mentioned facing were the lack of viable organic options to control certain pests, time and labor needed to control weeds when herbicides were not used, security challenges, etc. Obviously, they could not sell much of what did not grow well without effective pest and weed control.  There is some zealous Garden of Eden like idealism that permeates the thinking of many until they have faced the reality of actually trying to farm in Hawai‘i.

I hope that my talk also brought to light that with increasing population and cropping intensification Native Hawaiians in the pre-European contact era indeed faced challenges and threats to sustainability despite far fewer constraints posed by invasive species.

Finally, I trust human ingenuity and integrated approaches to solve the challenges we currently face. In contrast to the polarized, advocacy-based discussions seen at some recent agricultural meetings, the dialogue at the first session of this symposia was surprisingly well-received, cordial, deep, and meaningful.

The challenges that agriculture faces in Hawaii demand an open and understanding approach based on the best scientific and verifiable on-farm evidence available so that we can best self-correct as a society for a more sustainable future.

I look forward to attending the 2nd and 3rd sessions of the symposia series.

The three-part symposium is being hosted by the Hilo Hamakua Community Development Corporation, and, as Dr. Mathews mentioned, the first one went  well.

The next two meetings are November 5th and November 13th; both are from 6-8 p.m., in the Laupahoehoe Community Public Charter School Bandroom.

The meetings are open to the public; please come if you’re interested. Read more here.

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Yes, We’ll Have No Tomatoes

Richard Ha writes:

I haven’t mentioned this yet, but we have been phasing out production of our tomatoes.

This came about because of what I’ve been saying here for years: The price of oil has raised farming costs substantially. The pluses of growing our hydroponic tomatoes were no longer exceeding the minuses.

When we started growing tomatoes back in 2002, we had been banana growers. Oil prices were low and banana prices were also low; it was hard to make a living that way. We needed to diversify, which is one of the reasons we went into tomatoes. It was a good decision.

But costs have been increasing drastically, and our tomato growing infrastructure is getting old and will start falling apart soon, so we had to make a decision. Do we take it apart and rebuild the tomato houses? Or do we replace them? Replacing them would cost an eye-opening three times what it cost 12 years ago when we put them up.

It’s a real-life consequence of what I keep saying here: The price of oil is four times higher than it was 10 years ago and there are significant consequences. Everything costs so much more now. We are in the middle of major changes and most people don’t even realize it.

We took into account that our customers are under increasing economic pressure, as well—meaning they have less disposable income—and that our tomatoes are a high-end product. We also knew, as we made this decision, that oil and other costs are expected to keep rising.

Our plan had always been to take our tomato farming to the next step, which would have been to leverage our excess hydroelectricity in a controlled environment that allowed us to exclude insects and optimize light and temperature. Unfortunately, it just took too long to get our hydro plant operating.

It’s been a very difficult decision, and one that we’ve been carefully considering and making for quite some time, taking not only all these conditions into account but also our next generation. As hard as it’s been to make this decision, we all agreed it was the right thing to do. It allows us to continue farming. 

We’re definitely not closing up shop; just refocusing our farming efforts based on economic factors.

We will stay in bananas. They do well in our rain and deep soil and other conditions. The banana infrastructure we have in place, such as the coolers and concrete, is good for another 20 years. The pluses exceed the minuses.

I continue to be very interested in producing a cost-effective protein source here on the farm, such as tilapia and other fish. We are currently working on the problems of protein feed and oxygenation of water, which we can do with gravity and electricity. We’re always thinking about where we need to be in 10 or 20 years.

And I’ll let you know what other interesting projects crop up along the way. 

In the meantime, you’ll see our Hamakua Springs Country Farms tomatoes until the end of November; that’s when the last of them will come off the vines, go through our packing houses, and hit the supermarkets.

We thank you for supporting, and enjoying, our tomatoes all these years.

Hamakua Springs tomatoes

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