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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, January 10, 2002

Fuel cell project may be Hawai'i's best bet

Hawai'i's on-again, off-again love affair with alternative energy took a big jump forward this week with news that a public-private hydrogen fuel cell project will be launched in Kaka'ako.

This is potentially big news for oil-dependent Hawai'i, and it could not have come at a more appropriate time.

The Bush administration announced yesterday it has switched gears on on the national effort toward energy independence. Under the Clinton administration, much of the effort focused on designing and building more fuel-efficient vehicles. That has been replaced by a national government-industry push to develop vehicles powered by clean, renewable hydrogen fuel cells.

Because widespread commercial use of hydrogen fuel cells remains some years off, it is a shame that the search for more energy-efficient cars will be put on hold.

But long-term, it is increasingly apparent that hydrogen fuel cells are the energy wave of the future. It is a dream that was pushed years ago by the late Sen. Spark Matsunaga and has since come much closer to reality.

The Hawai'i project was unveiled yesterday by Sen. Dan Inouye, Matsunaga's colleague, who helped win federal financing for the local facility. Other participants include Hawaiian Electric Co., the University of Hawai'i and UTC Fuel Cells of Connecticut.

Most global conflict today, Inouye noted, is one way or another rooted in oil. So the sooner the world has an alternative to this fossil fuel, the sooner it will eliminate this source of conflict.

Hydrogen fuel cells, at least in theory, offer an unlimited and environmentally harmless source of electricity. The local project will focus on creating hydrogen extracted from biofuels and methane found in the sea floor.

But hydrogen can also be extracted from ordinary ocean water, a potentially limitless source of energy for ocean-bound Hawai'i. Work on that front is expected to continue at the Ocean Thermal Laboratory at Ke'ahole on the Big Island, where pipes bring near-shore deep-ocean water to the surface where it can be used in conjunction with warmer surface water.

A pilot project has already demonstrated that the temperature differences are enough to produce electricity on a small scale. The same temperature difference can be used in technology devoted to producing hydrogen for fuel cell use.

All of this sounds a bit like science fiction right now, but it is not. Hydrogen fuel cells are already in commercial use around the world, and the demand for this energy source will only grow in the years to come.

Our unique mid-ocean location creates the right near-shore environment for cutting edge experimentation in the development of this energy source of the future — a future that extends far beyond the borders of our Island-state.