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Green Acres

From green power timber to revenue-producing green waste, Bill Cowern is harnessing global forces for local gain

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Bill Cowern’s 3,700-acre forestry project on Kauai is within a year or so of starting to return cash to investors — just a little more than a decade after he started planting trees on fallow sugar-cane lands. But 10 years later, the initial profit won’t be coming from any of the trees whose logging potential launched the venture.

That’s because the world has changed in the meantime.

“The price of oil is having a dramatic impact on our business models,” Cowern says, bouncing down an old cane road in a four-wheel-drive truck as old as his tree farm. “There are businesses now that didn’t exist even two years ago.”

For Cowern’s business, Hawaiian Mahogany, one result of the dramatic rise in the price of fossil fuels is that many of his low-value trees can now be profitably sold as wood chips and burned to create power for Island homes and businesses. To that end, he is working with the firm Green Energy Hawaii, which is in the permitting process to build a 6.4-megawatt biomass-fueled power-generation plant. The facility alone could double the renewable energy portfolio for the island’s utility, Kauai Island Utility Cooperative.

The tree he has identified for green power is called albizia. Cowern says he expects land planted in albizia trees to be able to produce about 10 dry tons of wood chips per acre, per year. That translates to about $600 in revenues per acre. Hawaiian Mahogany has about 2,400 acres under lease that are growing albizia. Much of it is mixed albizia and harder woods like eucalyptus species.

Bill Cowern, of Hawaiian Mahogany, has about 2,400 acres where he grows the albizia trees pictured above.  He plans to use the trees to create wood chip fuel for alternative energy on Kauai.  He also plans to use the tree's foliage as fertilizer and cattle feed.  It should be noted that albizia is an invasive tree and Cowern is also looking for a replacement tree that can be as productive.

Photo by: Ken Posney

By contrast, Cowern’s harder woods should produce roughly $10,000 per acre on a 15-year harvest cycle — or roughly the same amount per year, he says. It is an impact of the price of oil that wood chipped for energy is nearly as valuable as good timber stock.

That’s good news for Kauai. The Green Energy Hawaii plant has a contract with the utility to sell power for a price that is now substantially less than the cost of producing oil-fueled power. That means potentially lower rates for power consumers. The other benefit of the wood-fired generation facility, compared to many other renewable power sources like wind and solar, is that this plant should be able to produce power day and night.


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