At present, the new biorefinery is expected to churn out five barrels a day, which, thanks to rules attached to the $25-million U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) grant that made the project possible, will be free to anyone who wishes to test the biofuel. Ultimately, this facility may be able to convert as much as 1,000 metric tons of biomass per day into liquid fuel; the goal is to build a commercial-scale facility that would churn out 50 million gallons (189.2 million liters) of transportation fuels per year.
Yet even an output of that scale would only account for 1/45 of Hawaii's annual oil use. To really make a dent, the state would have to build many such facilities—and grow much more biomass, though that is at least a feasible undertaking, given current land availability. The islands now boast some 400,000 acres (161,874 hectares) of fallow land (though more and more of that is being taken up by biotech test crops). The other alternative is more condominiums, which may ultimately prove fatal to attempts to revive Hawaiian agriculture. "This is a tremendous opportunity to make a product, which is in demand in Hawaii, which is expensive in Hawaii, from land that is not being productively used," Rekoske argues. This, in fact, is part of the reason the company located there rather than competing on the mainland with cellulosic ethanol makers for corn stover or the like.
Of course, the biorefinery is just part of Hawaii's efforts to wean itself from imported oil. Other measures range from the military running a test fleet of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles from General Motors to burning trash to produce electricity to help feed the electric car–charging stations beginning to appear across Honolulu. Hawaii even has an ongoing effort to turn ocean thermal energy conversion technology into a reality, as well as an actual algal agriculture industry—the algae are largely grown for nutraceutical purposes but have also been turned into jet fuel on the mainland by UOP.
The biggest user of oil on the islands—and possibly the entire world—is the U.S. military, which burns through more than 300,000 barrels a day, worldwide. In Hawaii, all of that oil is imported. As a result, the USPC has taken a keen interest in diversifying its supply of fuels, and the U.S. Department of Defense as a whole has pressed for plans to invest $510 million with the DOE and Department of Agriculture to help commercial development of a domestic biofuels industry. "We would never let countries that sell us fossil fuels build our military vehicles, but we give them a say in whether they operate," U.S. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said at the Bloomberg New Energy Finance Summit on March 20. The Navy has embraced biofuels that can immediately substitute for petroleum in conventional engines, "mainly to make us better war fighters," Mabus said.
That switch has received criticism, largely because such alternative fuels are more than 10 times more expensive than petroleum-derived fuels. "From wind to coal and coal to oil to nuclear, there have always been naysayers," said Mabus, recalling previous Navy efforts to switch motive fuels. As it stands, however, the Navy has spent more than $5 billion more than budgeted in the past year just on oil and it has set a goal of securing half its fuel needs from biofuels by 2020.