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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Appetite for Electricity
Source: State of Hawaii Data Book 2006
Across the state, developers and government agencies are proposing numerous ideas for small power plants of various kinds on several islands, some to burn either waste wood or trees grown for energy, some to burn landfill gas, some to burn municipal trash and crop trash; as well as a small hydroelectric plant. Although ethanol is generally considered a transportation fuel, Hawaiian Electric says it will be able to burn the fuel in its new Campbell Industrial Park generator.
Hawaii’s energy future is a rich blend of technologies, of facilities big and small, spread across the Hawaiian environment.
It would be a mistake to look only at the electrical production when you peruse the future of electricity in the Islands. Much else will also change.
“The utility of the future is going to look a lot different than it does now,” says Warren Bollmeier, president of the Hawaii Renewable Energy Alliance, a renewable energy industry business league.
For one thing, it will be far more distributed. For the immediate future, the electric company power plants are likely to remain major power sources, but more and more, the power will come from distributed sources—windmill farms that may feed power from one island to another, factories in diverse locations burning trash and wood chips, solar panels on warehouse and home roofs, generators operating on the methane from municipal landfills, wave energy plants on the outer reefs and perhaps barge-mounted ocean thermal energy conversion systems at sea.
Ownership of the power system will be decentralized as well, with the utility increasingly buying power from third-party producers.
The utilities could make some of their money simply renting out their distribution lines rather than buying and selling power. The state Public Utilities Commission is studying proposals for something called “wheeling,” in which utilities would be required to lease space on their systems so that another company could, for example, generate its own power in Moiliili, run it through Hawaiian Electric lines to the Windward Side, and sell it directly to a shopping center in Kaneohe.
The other side of the power system is demand, and with conservation and new technologies, that’s also in a sea of change.
“The cheapest energy is the energy you don’t buy,” says Ted Peck. New homes, built with currently available technologies, can use half the power of older houses, and without adding significantly to construction cost, he said. Old homes can be retrofitted to significantly drive down their energy demands.
There are technologies to replace electrical demand. Solar water heating is mature technology, but the new kid on this block in Hawaii is seawater air conditioning, which is being designed for downtown Honolulu and will use cold ocean water instead of electricity to run high-rise cooling systems.
How possible is it to significantly replace oil as our power source?
Bollmeier says that the technology exists to produce all of Hawaii’s electrical energy locally. The problem is that resources like solar, wind and even wave energy are intermittent—there’s no power at night, or when the wind isn’t blowing, or when the ocean is calm.
“The extent to which we get to 100 percent [renewable power] depends on where we get in storage technology,” Bollmeier says.
Meanwhile, high oil prices and global climate change will continue pushing the potential of renewables, said Jeff Mikulina, head of the Sierra Club in Hawaii.
“By 2020, you’ll be able to lease your rooftop so they can use it to soak up the sun with photovoltaics,” Mikulina says.
Jan TenBruggencate is an author and award-winning science reporter. His Web site, RaisingIslands.com, covers environmental issues and new scientific research statewide.