Growing Interest In Green Energy

Jade Moon
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Wednesday - September 19, 2007
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Bill Cowern with one of his eucalyptus trees
Bill Cowern with one of his eucalyptus trees

Bill Cowern is familiar with “the look.”

“Oh, yeah,” he says, “the eyes glaze over.” He can tell they would really like to inch away from the guy going on and on about trees and sustainability and fertilizer and big oil. Not exactly light party conversation.

But I liked it. And so did a panel of experts selecting recipients for the “Who’s Keeping Hawaii Green” awards presented recently by Hawaii Home + Remodeling magazine.

Cowern runs Hawaiian Mahogany Co. on Kauai, a pioneer in something called perma-culture. For those who’ve never heard the term, don’t feel bad, I hadn’t either. According to Hawaii Home + Remodeling, permaculture is “the use of natural resources to achieve agricultural sustainability.” More simply put, Cowern grows his own organic fertilizer - trees that actually create nitrogen-rich topsoil and eliminate the need for fuel-based fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. As an added bonus, the fast-growing Albizia trees can be used as biomass for producing electricity.

Eyes glazing over yet? No? Good. I knew you’d be interested.

Cowern hasn’t always been green. In fact he started out a bit of a skeptic. But he was a businessman, and practical. When McBride Sugar went under in 1995, Cowern was able to get hold of a substantial amount of land and decided to grow eucalyptus trees for lumber. He discovered that fertilizer was a huge expense and started looking for ways to increase his bottom line. His research led him to the fast-growing Albizia tree. He soon realized that growing his cash eucalyptus trees along with the faster growing, nitrogen-fixing Albizia would eliminate the need for fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides. Cowern at this point wasn’t an environ-mentalist. He was motivated by a different kind of green - profit.


“I could save a lot of money.” But then came what he calls his epiphany. He read an article about something called “peak oil production.” (Eyes glazing over? Don’t go away - it’s pretty simple.) It means the point in time when oil companies actually hit the maximum level of production, and from that point on it’s all downhill as the world’s oil supply begins to diminish. It means the bountiful times are over, and we’re slowly but surely running out of gas.

Cowern the skeptic “thought the article was crap.” But Cowern the savvy businessman decided to dig a little deeper. The article was in a respected trade publication called the Oil and Gas Journal. Cowern Googled the article’s author and called him up. That conversation profoundly altered his perspective - and changed his life.

“We talked for three hours on the phone. I asked him if what he wrote was true. He told me, ‘it’s worse.’ “

From that point on Cowern read everything he could find on the subject. And what he concluded was that, “oh, my god. There’s not much out there. I came to the realization that not only is it going to happen, but it probably already has.” According to Cowern, world oil production peaked in 2005 and has been going down ever since.

What does this have to do with Cowern’s business? Or with us? Everything. Whether or not you agree with his findings, you can’t argue with the need to make Hawaii more energy self-sufficient. Cowern, former skeptic, is convinced that renewable energy is absolutely necessary for the survival of his business and our state.

Toward that end, Cowern has started growing oil palms for bio-mass. He’s partnered with Green Energy Hawaii to produce a bio-mass power plant, and he’s setting his sights on solar as well.

He’s also working with the University of Hawaii on a new type of biomass technology that he calls The Magic Box.


“Imagine a tropical village. Someone drops a box on the outskirts of the village. It is about the size of a shipping container. The box is connected to a dish containing dirty water. You feed the box wood scraps. Out of the box comes fertilizer. Now you can grow crops. Out of the box also comes pure drinking water. Part of the box is also a refrigerator. You can now preserve food. The box also provides electricity. Now you can watch TV. It is magic!”

Maybe the magic box sounds like pie-in-the-sky to you and me, but Cowern says it is an attainable dream. We have everything we need to do it.

“We have endless sunlight, a plentiful water supply, tradewinds and open agricultural lands, a bounty of natural gifts.”

The guy dreams big. Thank goodness for that.

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