Biomass and Solar: A True Economic Comparison

R enewable energy is an issue that must be met with urgency. This issue is especially relevant in Hawaii, where the state has set the goal to reach 100% clean energy by 2045. Hawaii Island is currently making investments in renewable energy, resulting in pricing debates between biomass and solar energy.

The Honua Ola Bioenergy facility, located in Pepe’ekeo, is 99% complete, and ready to generate clean energy for Hawaii Island using biomass. This “FIRM” source of energy is necessary for Hawaii so that our state can meet the renewable energy mandate while ensuring a stable grid.

The PUC states that solar will cost the residents of Hawaii Island 0.08 to 0.12 cents/kWh, and bioenergy from Honua Ola will cost 0.22 cents/kWh. We’re here to tell you that this estimate does not account for the total cost of solar energy with batteries and ignores fundamental economic limitations.
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The Financial Implications of Solar’s Limited Capacity

S olar power is a vital source of clean energy, but it is an intermittent energy source and cannot continuously generate electricity. While advancements in solar energy storage have expanded its capabilities, this limited capacity requires a firm energy source to ensure power reliability and quality.

Intermittent energy sources are non-dispatchable without some type of energy storage system, such as batteries. This limitation results in a widespread misunderstanding of the actual cost of solar energy. Many estimates are based on scenarios in which the solar panels are used at full capacity, which is rarely the case. In fact, there are no solar panels that work at 100% efficiency. This means that solar energy costs could easily double when used in a limited capacity.
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It’s true that battery storage can be added to solar plants; however, the cost will increase to about 0.25-0.28 cents/kWh. However, this cannot run year-round 24/7. This system only has enough battery backup to run 24 hours straight on both the PV and the energy stored in the battery before they run out of juice. This is why its called “near-firm”, as you only get 24 hours of firm energy for a single day and not 24 hours every day.

Because of this, Solar + Battery is more expensive than Honua Ola’s biomass solution. Even with battery storage maximized, Solar + Battery plants cannot produce enough energy in a day to be available to cover a 24-hour outage. Biomass is “dispatchable” power and can generate as much or as little energy as is required. This is why it is currently the most effective renewable energy replacement for fossil fuels.

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The Importance of Job Creation & Stimulating the Local Economy

Solar plants are extremely limited in their ability to stimulate the local economy. Money spent constructing and maintaining solar plants requires imported materials collected and assembled outside of the United States. In 2017, 80% of solar panel infrastructure was imported from manufacturers based in Asia, reducing the potential for American manufacturing jobs.

Once operational, solar plants generate a minimal amount of long-term employment opportunities. A majority of the jobs created are temporary, as they are only needed during the project’s construction.

Modern, carbon-neutral biomass facilities can infuse money back into the community. Instead of sourcing components from overseas, the Honua Ola Bioenergy facility is sustainably powered by local feedstock. This means job opportunities in forestry, agriculture, and transportation. In addition, Honua Ola is projected to generate yearly tax revenue of $1.8 million once operational.

Honua Ola will provide Hawaii Island residents job opportunities outside of tourism, which is needed now more than ever. The facility already employs over 40 skilled-workers and will employ 200-plus additional workers as soon as operations begin. According to a study conducted by Dr. Bruce Plasch, an expert on Hawaii’s economic issues, payroll for these employees will total an estimated $11.1 million annually. This payroll will support about 542 residents living in 227 homes statewide.

We want to do everything in our power to eliminate fossil fuels and protect Hawaii’s renewable energy future. Scientists agree that energy diversification is essential to energy security, so we must prioritize an approach that embraces all forms of renewable energy. With these priorities in mind, it should be clear to the Public Utilities Commission that it must reverse its decision and allow Honua Ola to launch operations. If this decision is not reversed, and solar projects continue to be green-lit, Hawaii Island runs the risk of destabilizing the grid.

The Honua Ola Bioenergy facility is 99% complete and prepared to start sustainably generating renewable energy for residents of Hawaii Island this year.

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And here are the facts:

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MISINFORMATION

CLAIM: Solar is better for Hawaii than biomass
FACTS: Biomass energy is a vital renewable energy solution and will support other intermittent energy sources like solar. In order for the state to meet the 100% renewable energy mandate by 2045, we’ll need to use all renewable energy technologies, including biomass, wind, solar, geothermal and others. While solar energy is powerful in its own right, biomass has certain advantages due to its enhanced capabilities. Biomass (i.e. trees & plants) are self-regenerating, however, solar panels are not. If damage to solar panels occurs there is a significant reduction in energy output which leads to additional repair and replacement costs. Batteries required to store solar energy contain toxic materials and notoriously wear out rapidly as a result of the regular charge and discharge cycles. In addition, solar panels and batteries are manufactured overseas in places like China. Biomass does not require these additional costs and will use feedstock grown and harvested locally a few miles from the facility.
CLAIM: Honua Ola will result in the deforestation of Hawaii
FACTS: Quite the opposite. We are ensuring that overgrown and underutilized eucalyptus trees, along with invasive albizia and strawberry guava, are being repurposed in a sustainable manner. More trees will be responsibly replanted when harvested to offset carbon emissions and ensure operations are carbon neutral or negative.

Eucalyptus, the primary feedstock we’ll use, grows in abundance on the island’s commercially managed forests. Originally created for the purpose of wood export, these forests have now become overgrown and underutilized due to a change in international market conditions. New uses such as biomass for energy repurposes the trees in a sustainable manner and more trees will be responsibly replanted when harvested to offset carbon emissions.
CLAIM: The Honua Ola facility will increase carbon emissions
FACTS: When you look at the entire story, trees and plants already release carbon dioxide during their lifecycle, absorbing it as they grow and releasing it when they die and decay. When trees are used as an energy source, they are using their wood to produce energy before they die and release their carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Then, Honua Ola plants and grows more trees which absorb more carbon dioxide from the air. Honua Ola will replant more trees than harvested making its operations carbon neutral or negative.
CLAIM: This facility will harm our community
FACTS: This facility will improve resources in the community by supplying long-term jobs to 200+ workers, and supporting 542 residents living in about 227 homes statewide. Once Honua Ola’s facility is operational, it is projected to generate approximately $1,846,822 per year in property taxes for the County of Hawaii. Once Honua Ola’s plant begins operations, the projected annual state-wide revenue from the energy sales and indirect sales of $63,027,351 in the High Scenario.

This facility is carbon neutral and is heavily regulated to ensure that it does not dirty the water or decrease air quality or soil quality. The Honua Ola facility will lower Hawaii’s dependence on fossil fuels by approximately 299,796 fewer barrels of oil being imported each year for savings on imports of about $20,985,720 per year. Honua Ola’s facility is projected to supply 180,600 MWh/year.
CLAIM: Biomass is an outdated source of energy
FACTS: Honua Ola’s facility is a state-of-the-art biomass facility. Their modern emissions controls meet or exceed air emissions standards and comply with applicable federal and state regulations Plus, the plant is required by the federal and state agencies to meet stringent air quality requirements. Please note, with existing technology, any form of firm power production creates emissions.
CLAIM: Energy from Honua Ola costs too much
FACTS: In 2017 Honua Ola was approved twice by the PUC, with a price of 22 cents/kWh. This is because it provides reliable, firm renewable energy continuously, 24/7. Honua Ola also aligns with the state mandate for 100% renewable energy by 2045. Solar alone cannot provide continuous reliable energy, so it must be combined with more expensive energy from fossil fuel plants, which makes the total cost more than Honua Ola.
CLAIM: Solar energy costs less than Honua Ola
FACTS: Solar + 4-hour battery storage can only supply energy at its maximum rate for up to 8 hours for the cost of 8-9 cents/kWh on average. The energy supplied for the other 16 hours of the day must come from fossil fuel plants at 30 cents/kWh. Plus, when it's rainy or cloudy during the day, solar produces much less energy but still charges consumers as if energy is being produced for a full 8 hours. On days when it can only supply half the average amount - 4 hours of maximum power - the cost doubles for consumers to 16-18 cents/kWh. Honua Ola costs less for the full day because it won't need extra batteries and can replace fossil fuel plants.
CLAIM: Honua Ola injects hot water into the ocean
FACTS: False. Honua Ola will draw water from the saltwater aquifer through 1,200-foot-deep wells and circulate it in a closed system for cooling, like a car radiator. After cooling, the water is then sent back into the saltwater aquifer. The recirculated water will be within one-degree Fahrenheit of the ocean water and will not harm the marine environment. This process is carefully regulated by the Department of Health.