By TOM CALLIS
Tribune-Herald staff writer
It’s what everyone imagines doing: making their energy bill disappear.
But even with a roof full of solar panels, few find themselves completely off the grid.
Richard Ha, who owns the Hamakua Springs farm, expects to soon make himself part of the exception. And it’s all with the help of one East Hawaii’s most plentiful resources.
With the use of an old sugar cane flume, and a 112-kilowatt turbine, Ha plans to power his entire 600-acre farm with water from the Waiaama Stream, giving the energy-conscious farmer an abundant supply of essentially free electricity.
“It’s about stabilizing our costs for the future,” he said during a tour of his farm last week.
Ha expects to generate about 70 kw on a regular basis, about double what his farm needs.
He plans to give the excess free to the grid, and is currently waiting for approval from Hawaii Electric Light Co. to connect his power supply with its customers before turning it on.
That could be in about three weeks, Ha estimates. But, as he sees it, it almost could not come soon enough.
Ha said he has been seeking a solution to ever-increasing energy costs since he attended a peak oil conference on the mainland in 2007, which addressed the issue of increasing consumption with fewer accessible supplies. The result is higher energy prices.
With Hawaii getting most of its electricity from oil, it didn’t take long for him to realize the implication to the islands and his business.
“Every time oil prices go up we become less self-sufficient,” he said.
And higher costs can hit farmers hard, Ha said, noting they have a hard time passing it on to consumers.
“As soon as I came back, we started looking into it,” he said.
It didn’t take long to find the solution.
“We went straight to that,” Ha said, referring to the flume. “It’s what we had.”
The flume, once used to transport sugar cane down field, took some upgrading, as well as new piping to carry the water down the 150-foot drop in elevation, along side taro and sweet potato fields, to the turbine.
Ha said forcing change is part of his business model.
And while he continually looks to the future to anticipate changes to his business, he notes that sometimes the best solutions aren’t new ones.
“A lot of it is old stuff,” he said, referring to hydropower.
But it is one that can make a big difference.
Ha said his energy bill tops around $11,000 a month, partly due to the large refrigerators used to ripen his produce.
Installing the hydro system cost north of $1 million, he said, but he got some grant aid to help make it happen.
Ha doesn’t expect it to take too long to get a return on the investment.
Additionally, he envisions using the power of the streams through his property to turn mechanical equipment used for food processing.
In the future, he also hopes to introduce agricultural tourism to his business, with displays of traditional Hawaiian and modern means of farming.
Asked if he had any more ideas, Ha responded with a laugh.
“It’s only limited by your imagination,” he said.
Email Tom Callis at firstname.lastname@example.org.