By TOM CALLIS
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Adjacent to a papaya field, a less well-known crop stretches for acres on a farm near Keaau.
The plant, known as jatropha, is a newcomer to Hawaii agriculture and grown only on this spot makai of Highway 11.
It stands not much taller than a person and, unlike its neighbor, produces no fruit to show off.
But peel back its green leaves and its real potential emerges — nuts, harvested not for food, but for fuel.
The seeds of the jatropha nut are prized by biodiesel producers for its oil, and Pacific Biodiesel, which recently started a refinery nearby at the Shipman Business Park, plans to take full advantage.
The company has partnered with James Twigg-Smith and his father, Christian, who started the 200-acre farm five years ago. At the time, they knew what they wanted to do but weren’t entirely certain who would buy the nuts.
“My dad was interested in renewable energy, so we decided to try this,” Twigg-Smith said. “It just worked out really well.”
Bob King, Pacific Biodiesel chairman, said the nuts will be used to supplement the company’s supply of waste oil from restaurants, its primary resource.
King said the plant, which went online about seven months ago, is on track to refine annually about 1.7 million gallons of food oil from Hawaii that would otherwise go to waste.
He estimates about 2 million gallons of food oil waste is produced each year in the state.
“It used to go into the landfill but now we turn it into fuel,” he said.
The refinery can produce up to 5 million gallons of biofuel a year.
With the help of some waste oil from the mainland, the plant is running at about 50 percent capacity.
King said the company plans to use oil from the nuts and other plants to make up the rest.
“It’s kind of exciting,” King said. “It gets all the pieces together.”
Twigg-Smith, while providing a tour of the farm to about 20 people Thursday, including a few Big Isle state legislators, said the farm can produce about 2,000 pounds of nuts per acre. That translates to between 50 and 75 gallons of fuel, he said.
“This is terrific. This could be a game-changer,” commented Sen. Gil Kahele, D-Hilo.
The oil is extracted at Pacific Biodiesel’s crushing facility, located at the plant. Along with collecting oil, the facility also turns the edible waste into feed for isle ranches and dairies.
Macadmia and kukui nuts are also used. Next, King said the company plans to expand its acreage with a farm in Waimea for growing sunflower, safflower and camelina for oil, and possibly feed.
Its customers include the city and county of Honolulu, the U.S. military, Hawaii Fueling Network, and the Hawaii Electric Light Co. vehicle fleet.
King said he hopes to be able to sell the fuel to HELCO for power generation.
He argues that biodiesel is priced competitively with oil, and is better not just for the environment, but also for the economy.
“The money you spend on biodiesel is spent here,” King said. “We are putting money back into the community and it comes back into your pocket at some point.”
Email Tom Callis at email@example.com.