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Maui sugar plantation still looking for biofuel crop

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WAILUKU >> Hawaii’s last sugar cane plantation wants to transition to growing plants for energy. But it hasn’t found another crop that grows as well as sugar cane in a variety of soils or one that can stand up to Maui’s strong winds.

The company has extensively evaluated biofuel, Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. General Manager Rick Volner told The Maui News in an email.

But even if the company found an alternative crop, the technology to convert plant materials into energy on a commercial scale still hasn’t been developed, he said. The company will continue to test the viability of other crops, he said.

The sugar company has received federal grants to test bana grass, cane and sorghum varieties on its 56 square miles of farmland in central Maui.

“We want to ultimately be an energy producer, either minimizing the sugar production or moving to energy entirely,” Hilary Bingman, the company’s community relations manager, told the Rotary Club of Kihei-Wailea during a luncheon Wednesday.

HC&S produces 150,000 to 200,000 tons of raw sugar and more than 60,000 tons of molasses each year.

About 90 percent of the raw sugar is shipped to California for final refining and sold under the C&H sugar label, Bingman said. The remaining 10 percent is cooked, processed and sold on-island as Maui Brand Natural Cane Sugars. The molasses is sold to the Hawaii livestock industry for feed, with the excess shipped to mainland customers, the company’s website says.

But low sugar prices and poor weather conditions in recent years have stressed the company’s profits. HC&S is projecting a full-year operating loss of between $11 million and $12.5 million, Volner said.

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