Spin Zone: Should Hawaii Support Ethanol?

June, 2007


A: When the state rushed its decision to mandate ethanol use, it may have put on the gas a little too fast.

It’s time to slow down and proceed with caution.

Already we see unintended consequences. In the rush to pass the environmentally friendly law, no one seems to have considered potential adverse effects from a new ethanol blend.

Small businessmen, individuals and recreational users of the blended ethanol fuel were hit hardest. While the blend was fine for automobiles, it was just the opposite for boats, small airplanes and lawn mowers. Complaints poured in about small engines that would no longer work. The new ethanol blend essentially choked the heretofore gasoline engines and caused them to work sporadically or not at all. Some reported spending thousands of dollars to repair old engines or purchase replacement engines.

Meanwhile, recent studies show that ethanol production on a grand scale could create more pollution. Stanford University engineering professor Mark Jacobsen concludes that ethanol is “slightly worse than gasoline” with regard to the ozone. His study suggests that ethanol production and consumption could actually cause dirtier air and more smog.

In Hawaii, there is also the issue of water. Not only does ethanol utilize excessive energy in the production process, but Midwest farmers report that growing corn for ethanol production takes several times more water than producing other crops. With water such an important commodity in our Islands, do we want to move too quickly to take up thousands of acres for water-guzzling crops? Does that make sense?

What does make sense is slowing down. We need to get all our questions answered and consider all the potential adverse effects before we continue on this path.

Let’s get off the ethanol fast track. It’s time to take the cautionary road of common sense.


A: Look at the Brazilian model for the answer. Brazil, the largest sugar producer in the world, embarked on a program to wean itself from imported oil during the energy crisis of the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was a huge success.

The Brazilian model can work here. If one looks back at the Hawaiian sugar industry at the height of its production of 1.2 million tons of sugar (in the 1960s), a yield conversion of 14 pounds of sugar to produce a gallon of ethanol could have produced 176 million gallons of ethanol. With Hawaii’s present annual consumption of 460 million gallons of gasoline – adjusted for the lower energy content in the ethanol of 70 percent that of gasoline – sugar as ethanol could have displaced 123.2 million gallons of gasoline (27 percent of current use).

There are new technologies that convert lignocellulose (substances in woody plant-cell walls) to ethanol. The amount of energy present in the fibrous residue (bagasse) after the sugar is squeezed has the potential to produce more ethanol than is produced from sugar. These new technologies are on the verge of becoming commercialized.

Hawaii has crops to produce renewable fuels. None comes close to sugar cane in total energy grown per unit of water, sunlight and carbon dioxide. Sugar cane growth requires an enormous amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to make sugar, contributing greatly to the reduction of greenhouse gases. Hawaii has grown sugar for more than 150 years and still produces more sugar per acre than other countries.

Is oil a finite source? Will consumption grow and prices increase? Will global warming continue? Given that Hawaii imports more than 95 percent of its energy needs, are we the most vulnerable state in times of tight oil supplies? Do we need to be less dependent on Mideast oil? Is ethanol produced in Hawaii good for Hawaii?

You betcha.

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