Isles on way to becoming model for green energy
By Alana Semuels
Los Angeles Times
KONA — Take a ride in Ron Baird's pickup truck along the volcanic shore of the Big Island and he'll show you an inventor's wonderland.
On one parcel of this government-created energy laboratory, rows of mirrors shine white-hot in the sun, turning heat into energy. On another, brown water tanks harbor strands of algae that will be made into fuel. Nearby is a wind turbine whose blades spin parallel to the ground.
"It's an awesome amount of things going on here," said Baird, chief executive of National Energy Research Laboratory of Hawaii Authority, which is helping to nurture 42 green private-sector businesses on 877 acres of land in Kona.
Watch out, California.
Hawai'i is gunning for the title of the nation's green energy capital. It's aiming to obtain 70 percent of its total energy needs from clean sources within 20 years.
That ambitious target blows the solar panels off California's mandate to get a third of its electricity from renewables by 2020. But Hawai'i officials have concluded their state has little choice.
This tropical paradise is an energy beggar that depends almost solely on oil to fuel its vehicles and stoke its power plants. That's left the state, which doesn't produce a drop of crude, vulnerable to spills, price swings and geopolitics. Hawai'i residents already pay the highest pump prices and electricity rates in the country. The state imports around 51 million barrels of oil costing billions annually, according to government figures.
"We really are the canary in the coal mine," said Jeff Kissel, chief executive of the Gas Company of Hawaii. "What's happening to us with oil is going to happen to the rest of the country as supplies diminish."
More worrisome still is global warming. The threat of rising seas and pounding storms linked to climate change has put Hawai'i on a collision course with Mother Nature.
While Hawai'i's efforts to green itself won't make much of dent in the world's total carbon emissions, environmentalists hope the state can prove what's possible. The goal is to transform the nation's most energy dependent state into its cleanest and most sustainable.
"We're adopting policies and technologies here that can serve as a model for the rest of the globe," said Jeff Mikulina, executive director of the Blue Planet Foundation, a Hawai'i clean energy advocacy group.
The state this year began requiring all new homes be built with solar water heaters. Hawai'i is working with electric transport firm Better Place of Palo Alto, Calif., to build a network of recharging stations to jump-start mass use of electric vehicles in the Islands. Meanwhile, the state's public utilities commission is devising a compensation system to encourage homeowners and businesses to go solar by paying them to generate green electricity.
The policies stem from an agreement Hawai'i signed with the Department of Energy in 2008. The state pledged to obtain 70 percent of its total energy needs by 2030 — 40 percent from renewable electricity generation and the remaining 30 percent from energy efficiency. Known as the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative, that agreement has since been strengthened with binding legislation that exceeds California's mandate to get 33 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2020 (though Hawai'i has an extra decade to get there).
About 6.5 percent of Hawai'i's electricity came from renewable sources other than hydroelectric power in 2007, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. That's about half of what California — the nation's solar champion and a major player in wind and geothermal — has achieved so far.
But experts said Hawai'i's small size and unique geography could prove advantageous in the race for energy independence. With just 1.3 million inhabitants, its energy consumption is small. The Islands are blessed with abundant solar, wind, geothermal and wave resources. And residents are less likely to object to the cost of renewables since they already pay high energy prices.
"It's easier for Hawai'i to pull this off than anyone else," said Alison Silverstein, an independent consultant and one-time energy regulator. "They know how bad things can get, and they are highly motivated to take action."
Some of Hawai'i's projects might sound like the stuff of science fiction. The state is looking into building a 30-mile undersea cable to link proposed wind farms on Läna'i and Moloka'i into the electric grids on O'ahu and Maui. A local company is working to provide air conditioning in 40 Downtown buildings using chilly sea water pumped from three miles out in the ocean. And Hawai'i's own Gas Company is using municipal solid waste and animal fat to make synthetic natural gas to supply energy to its customers.
"If Saudi Arabia is rich in oil, you could use the analogy that Hawai'i is rich in renewable resources," said Will Rolston, energy coordinator for Hawai'i County.
The Big Island's grid already obtains about one-third of its power from renewables, Rolston said, including solar, wind and geothermal. It's also at the forefront of some of Hawai'i's biggest experiments, thanks in part to the National Energy Research Laboratory of Hawaii Authority.
In addition to its role as a green business incubator, the lab is a leading center for research on generating electricity by exploiting temperature differences between deep and shallow layers of sea water, a process known as ocean thermal energy conversion.
NELHA is also a showplace for innovations including seawater air conditioning. That technology uses cold, deep ocean water to cool the fresh water that circulates in a building's air conditioning system, eliminating the need for power-sucking chillers.
Baird likes to say that his office, which, like other NELHA buildings, uses the ocean air conditioning system, "is so cold I could lease it to Costco to store lettuce."
The other islands are getting on board. Military family housing being built on O'ahu will have meters in every home so that residents can tell how much energy they're using and compare it to their neighbor's usage. Such peer pressure has been proven to encourage conservation.
The military is also experimenting with electric generating turbines off the coast of O'ahu that harness energy from ocean waves.
Some Hawai'i residents are dubious about their state's big ambitions. The undersea cable proposal and a plan to build a commuter rail line have stirred concerns about cost. A survey by the Blue Planet Foundation found that residents rated energy independence behind other important issues including jobs, health care and traffic congestion.