After Oil

There’s a lot of talk about making Hawaii “energy independent” by kicking our imported oil habit. State government has set a deadline of 2020 for utilities to generate at least 20 percent of their power from sources other than oil. But what could we use to power our grid? Here, we explore the alternative energy sources now being pursued in the Islands.


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No other state is as dependent on imported fossil fuels for electrical power as Hawaii, where, as of a couple of years ago, 95 percent was generated from oil or coal. It’s a statistic that hasn’t gone unnoticed nationally. In a 2007 National Public Radio piece on climate change, Hawaii residents were portrayed as laid-back and “largely unconcerned with environmental issues.”

Most Island residents, familiar with curbside recycling battles, landfill struggles and the container recycling drama might reject that characterization, but none of those efforts has gone to the heart of the power grid issue.

That’s changing.

Fortunately, Hawaii is arguably the state with the best potential for a range of alternative energy solutions. We’ve used them for years on a very small scale in the form of home-built, galvanized-pipe solar water heaters, bagasse-burning generators in sugar mills and comparatively small hydroelectric plants on isolated streams.

But industry experts we interviewed suggest Hawaii is now ready for prime time. Renewable energy technologies are in many cases entirely ready, and in some cases nearly ready, to answer the environmental, political and economic needs to move away from oil.

However, there is still no clear image of the future—nobody has a good handle on which, if any, technologies will dominate. Hawaii’s engineers, planners and utility companies are struggling to keep up with the surge of ideas and proposals.

“There is no status quo any more,” says Ted Peck, an energy analyst and acting chief of the Energy Planning and Policy Branch for the state Department of Planning, Economic Development, and Tourism. “The status quo is gone.”

Hawaii’s utilities, with a push from the state Legislature, say they expect to produce substantial quantities of the state’s electrical power from renewable resources by 2020. The state’s renewable portfolio standard requires utilities to be generating 20 percent of their electrical power from renewable resources by then. In 2020, our appetite for electricity statewide is expected to peak at near 2,200 megawatts, up from a little more than 1,800 as of 2006.

Hawaiian Electric, which represents utilities on Oahu, in Maui County and in Hawaii County, says it intends to meet the new renewable energy standard. The other state electric utility, Kauai Island Utility Co-op, says it is shooting for 50 percent renewable within the same time frame.

Castle & Cooke, which own most of the island of Lanai, says it hopes to make that island 100 percent energy self-sufficient within a dozen years.

“Our goal is to look at Lanai as a golden example of sustainability,” says Tim Hill, executive vice-president of Castle & Cooke Resorts, which has an aggressive array of technologies planned.

So which resources will be in play in the state’s 2020 power picture, and how much of each?

The technologies getting the most play in power discussions are biofuels, wind, solar, geothermal, hydroelectric, wave and ocean thermal energy conversion, not necessarily in that order.




This term includes a range of fuels, but primarily ethanol and biodiesel, made mainly from grown plants.

The electric utilities are attracted to biofuels because they can use them in the same equipment they already own, which currently uses such liquid fossil fuels as heavy bunker oil, diesel and lighter naphtha. The utilities’ reciprocating engines and turbines would need little modification to burn biofuels.

“It’s probably going to be a long, long time before we mothball a diesel generator,” says Randy Hee, president of the Kauai Island Utility Co-op, KIUC.

For KIUC, as well as for the Hawaiian Electric companies, the expectation is that a lot of the renewable power will be provided by liquid fuels burned in traditional power plants.

Ethanol is primarily considered a transportation fuel, leaving biodiesel for the big utility generators. Biodiesel can be manufactured from vegetable oils like canola and soy, from nuts like the oil palm, and with crops like jatropha and kukui, for which new research is under way in Hawaii.

The folks at the vast Dutch conglomerate, Shell, have joined with HR BioPetroleum to research the making of biofuel from algae, using a 6-acre site operated by the Hawaii Natural Energy Laboratory on the Big Island.

BlueEarth Biofuels, in cooperation with Hawaiian Electric, plans a factory on Maui to convert imported oil crops into biodiesel, and is working with local officials and researchers on developing local oil crops—such as jatropha, a tree that has seeds that can be crushed to make an oil—for biodiesel. Hawaiian Electric’s Maui utility has agreed to buy the biodiesel and burn it in an existing power plant.

Hawaiian Electric has a contract with Imperium Renewables to provide biodiesel to fuel a new 110-megawatt generating plant being built at Campbell Industrial Park on Oahu.

KIUC’s Hee says his firm expects to be burning significant amounts of biofuels “within 10 years and probably a lot sooner.”

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Honolulu Magazine June 2018
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