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Palm oil-into-biodiesel is heart of Hawaii's green energy future

14/12/2010 (Star Advertiser) - Hawaiian Electric Co. has announced plans to build a facility to convert palm oil into biodiesel. The biodiesel will contribute badly needed and affordable fuel for the utility to provide electricity to Hawaii's people. The biodiesel will help offset Hawaii's dependence on other imported energy sources. Hawaii's Public Utilities Commission has approved the plan, including specific sustainability commitments.

And yet, radical environmental groups have spearheaded a campaign to prevent the development. They worry about the impact of palm oil production on rainforests in the developing world. The critics are wrong; the project will benefit Hawaii residents and men and women in developing countries, as well as the global environment.

Palm oil comes from regions of the world now facing extreme poverty. The people need to raise their living standards. In these regions, much of the population lives on just a few dollars a day. These nations desperately need to develop industries that can trade in global markets and provide living wages to their people.

The economic development process is historically jump-started by agriculture projects. Palm oil production can lift the world's most destitute out of abject poverty. Residents will have the resources to pursue productive activities and rewarding life-style enhancements. This includes things many of us in the U.S. take for granted, such as clean homes and access to education. Consumers of palm oil play a key role in helping this process unfold.

But what of allegations that palm oil harms the environment? The palm oil will come to Hawaii primarily from Malaysia, already a global leader in environmental health. Malaysia has committed to conserving 50 percent of its forests, far exceeding the 10 percent average that must be met according to United Nations agreements.

Contrary to claims from the German environmental group leading the campaign against the HECO plan, palm oil is the most sustainable biofuel on the planet. More fuel can be produced on a smaller footprint from the oil palm than alternative biofuels such as corn-based ethanol or German rapeseed oil.

Palm oil is a perennial crop that can be converted to biodiesel, while other vegetable crops like soya that can create biodiesel are annual. Palm oil requires less tillage, resulting in much fewer greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. It also requires considerably fewer energy inputs to grow and maintain.

In a recent statement, HECO correctly stated "biofuels are a part of Hawaii's clean energy future. Biofuels allow us to switch from 'black' to 'green' fuel in our existing generators, reducing dependence on and vulnerability to imported oil."

Of all possible biofuels, palm oil is king for its affordability, efficiency and eco-friendliness. Denying the HECO agreement would hamper wider adoption of sustainable practices worldwide.

The critics of palm oil want Hawaii to adopt domestic sources, such as jatropha. But jatropha is a limited-use commodity. Economies of scale that can drive down costs are impossible to achieve.

Further, Hawaii simply does not have adequate renewable resources in the form of wind, solar and geothermal to power its economy in a cost-effective manner. HECO provides electricity to 95 percent of residents and needs reliable and inexpensive energy sources such as palm oil to satisfy customer needs.

Hawaii's economy is built on trade and openness to the wider world. It has a golden opportunity to help some of the world's poorest citizens rise up from inhuman poverty while reducing its own dependence on fossil energy and sending a clear signal that sustainability is good economics and citizenship. What is wrong with that?

Environmental Health 
Environmental Health: From Global to Local (Public Health/Environmental Health)Environmental HealthEssentials of Environmental HealthEnvironmental Health: Ecological PerspectivesEnvironmental Health and Chemical SafetyA Community Guide to Environmental Health 


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