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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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Hawaiian Mahogany's Bill Cowern stands among oil palm seedlings in the firm's nursery.  The company hopes to use the oil palm fruit to make biodiesel to run its farm equipment.

Photo by: Ken Posney


Says KIUC president Randy Hee, “The power should be reliable and stable, which makes it attractive. It works out to about 9 percent of our power.”

And wood-chip-burning is just the latest innovation that has emerged from Cowern’s creative mind and one of his many demonstrations of how small local companies can respond to global forces in the marketplace. His approach to farming the former Kauai sugar lands works on a simple, 21st-century theory of sustainability: Minimize inputs and turn waste products into profit. While his operation is not yet turning a profit, it’s close, and the promised results are impressive.

Adding to his revenue potential, Cowern says he is seeking certification to be able to market carbon credits over the Chicago Climate Exchange. These are credits companies purchase if they cannot meet new emissions requirements. If approved, carbon-dioxide producers will be able to pay Hawaiian Mahogany to sequester carbon in the form of acreage planted in trees, which the company is already doing by farming trees. Cowern also hopes to be able to sign on other landowners whose holdings may be too small to qualify as a member of the climate exchange.

“It really surprised me to find that, in the United States, which did not sign on to the Kyoto Protocol, the percentage participation in carbon markets is about the same as in Kyoto countries,” he says.

Cowern is also tackling his own power bills to lower costs. For starters, Cowern reconfigured an existing irrigation system in the Knudsen Gap area of Kauai to feed a small hydroelectric plant. Final permitting was under way at this writing, and Cowern estimated the 125-kilowatt plant would be operational by the time this article appears. It will power his sawmill and excess electricity will be sold to the utility.

Cowern says his calculation is that his electricity from the hydro plant — accounting for maintenance, repair and amortization of purchase and installation costs — will be about 40 percent of what he would pay the utility for the power.

He also had to do something about gas prices. At more than $4 a gallon, fueling Hawaiian Mahogany’s equipment is a drain on the company’s finances. In response, the firm is researching oil palms, whose fruit can be converted into biodiesel that can run trucks, tractors and other machinery. Hawaiian Mahogany has 50 acres in oil palms, with dogs used to protect the fields from feral pigs, which eat young palms.

Cowern estimates that oil palms should produce about 600 gallons of biodiesel per acre per year, with harvest and processing costing $1.50 to $2 a gallon. At current fuel prices, it could cut his diesel bills in half.

So he’s got biomass, hydropower and biodiesel.

But it gets better.


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