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.

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.”


Photo courtesy of UPC Hawaii Wind Partners

Farming the wind on Maui.




A windmill with current technology is one of the cheapest ways to make electricity, with the obvious caveat that you won’t get power when the wind’s not blowing.

Over the next dozen years, big wind farms are likely to be present on most islands, some of which will dwarf the ones now in place. Currently, the state’s largest is the Kaheawa plant on Maui at 30 megawatts, but Castle & Cooke Resorts on Lanai  and UPC Wind on Molokai are each proposing wind farms in the 300-megawatt range, with the power proposed to go by undersea cable to Oahu.

Among other planned whirlyfarms are a 30-megawatt wind farm at Kahuku on Oahu, a 12-megawatt wind farm at Moloaa on Kauai, a 21-megawatt expansion of the Kaheawa wind facility and a 20-megawatt cluster of wind generators at Ulupalakua Ranch, also on Maui.





Solar photovoltaic power is traditionally generated by blue-hued rectangular panels bolted to remote home rooftops, to civil defense sirens, and to the cabin tops of sailboats. It has the reputation of being too expensive for day-to-day use where the electrical grid is accessible.

But get used to the look. With current tax breaks and dropping solar panel prices, solar photovoltaic power generation systems are today cost-effective in many applications, and numerous small businesses are outfitting their roofs with solar panels.

Hawaii’s biggest solar commitment to date is coming from the state government, which in January announced plans to put 34 megawatts of solar panels at 12 of its
facilities, including airports, harbors, highways buildings and the Hawaii Foreign-Trade Zone in downtown Honolulu.

In late January, James Campbell Co. and Hoku Solar Inc. announced plans for their Kapolei Sustainable Energy Park, a solar farm that would generate 1.5 megawatts, possibly as soon as the end of  this year.

As an indication of its own commitment to photovoltaics, Hawaiian Electric has signed up to put a 167-kilowatt array on its Ward Avenue building.

Photo Courtesy of Puna Geothermal Venture

Tapping geothermal energy on the Big Island.




Geothermal power is producing 30 megawatts of firm power on the Big Island, and the Puna Geothermal Venture has permits to pump that up to 60 megawatts. But the Big Island, with the recent construction of a fossil fuel plant outside Kona, doesn’t yet need it.

“[Additional] geothermal is not anticipated being needed until 2015 to 2017,” says Mike Kaleikini, plant manager.

Geothermal provides power that is not intermittent like wind and solar, and the island has plenty of room for expansion of geothermal in the future, he said.

The only other island with geothermal potential—rocks hot enough and shallow enough to provide the steam a geothermal plant needs—is Maui, but there are no plans currently to tap it, Kaleikini said.






The state has a number of hydroelectric plants—generation units that are turned by the power of falling water. In terms of new construction, the main hydro discussion is its potential as what’s called “pumped storage.” This is a way of extending the working usefulness of intermittent power sources.

With wind, for instance, you could use the power to pump water into a high-elevation reservoir when the propellers are turning, and then run that water back down into a hydroelectric plant to produce energy when the wind isn’t blowing.

There probably isn’t room for enough upland reservoirs to effectively move windmills from the intermittent power to the firm power category, but the technique could certainly extend their usefulness.




The ocean itself is a vast reservoir of energy. One technology takes advantage of the physical movement of water—the motion of waves can be harnessed to power generators directly. One wave-energy plant is being tested off Kaneohe, and another is planned off Maui by a firm called Oceanlinx.

There also seems to be potential for making power from the difference in temperatures between surface and deep water off Hawaii. Most of the world’s Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) testing has been done in pilot projects off the Big Island, but while Hawaiian Electric lists it as a potential energy source, there is still no active commercial Hawaii project and, indeed, no large-scale OTEC facility anywhere in the world.

The Hawaii-based firm OCEES, for Ocean Engineering and Energy Systems, has a tentative agreement with the Navy to buy the power from a 13-megawatt OTEC plant to be installed off the tiny island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

“Once you prove the first system works, we believe a lot of folks will adopt it, but it’s not easy to get the first one done. I would expect that we would have a system with 20 to 50 megawatts operational in Hawaii by 2020,” said OCEES president Harry Jackson.

Alternative energy advocate Henry Curtis, executive director of Life of the Land, said he believes OTEC could ultimately produce 40 percent to 50 percent of the state’s power—replacing oil as the primary electrical supplier.

Renewable power in Hawaii

Sources: Hawaiian Electric Co., Kauai Island Utility Co-op, government agencies and power providers.

 Some existing major alternative energy production:

Gay & Robinson
plantation (Kauai)

bagasse and hydro 4.2 megawatts

HC&S sugar plant (Maui)

bagasse and hydro 12 megawatts


46 megawatts

Kaheawa (Maui)
windfarm 30 megawatts

Puna Geothermal
Venture (Hawaii)
geothermal plant 30 megawatts

Hawi Renewable
Development (Hawaii)

wind farm 10.6 megawatts

Pakini Nui windfarm, South Point (Hawaii)

20.5 megawatts

Lalamilo wind farm, Hawaiian Electric Light Co., (Hawaii)

2.3 megawatts
Waiau and Puueo run-of-the-river  hydros, Hawaiian Electric Light Co.,  (Hawaii)
4.1 megawatts

Wailuku River run-
of-the-river hydro,
Hawaiian Electric Light Co.,  (Hawaii)
12.1 megawatts

Various private and commercial photovoltaic statewide,
approx. 2 megawatts total


 Some projects under construction or near-term:

* 34 megawatts of solar photovoltaic arrays at 12 state Department of Transportation locations, statewide, January 2010.

* Auwahi Wind Farm, Shell Renewables and
Ulupalakua Ranch (Maui), 20 megawatts, 2011

* Hawaiian Electric biodiesel-fueled plant, Campbell Industrial Park (Oahu) 110 megawatts, 2009

* Conversion of Maui Electric diesel generators to biodiesel, 170-plus megawatts, 2009-2012

*Green Energy Team power plant (wood chips as fuel) (Kauai)
6.4 megawatts, December 2008

* Castle & Cooke awaiting permits for 1.5 megawatt
solar photovoltaic plant on Lanai

*UPC Hawaii Wind
Partners is planning
expansion of Maui’s Kaheawa wind farm by 21 megawatts, end 2009; wind farm at Kahuku, Oahu, 30 megawatts 2009; wind farm at Moloaa, Kauai, 12.5 megawatts 2010

Planned longer-term or in preliminary discussion

* James Campbell Co. and Hoku Solar plan for 1.5 megawatts photovoltaic power at Kapolei  Sustainable Energy Park (Oahu)

* UPC Hawaii Wind Partners working on an approximately 300-megawatt windfarm on Molokai, power to be carried by undersea cable to Oahu

* Castle & Cooke, windfarm, approximately 300 megawatts on Lanai, power to be carried by undersea cable to Oahu

* Puna Geothermal Venture (Hawaii) haspermits for additional 30 megawatts.

* Mass burn garbage-to-
energy plant in Hilo (Hawaii), 5.4 megawatts

* Tradewinds biomass-to-energy plant at veneer mill in Hamakua (Hawaii), 3.6 megawatts

* Oceanlinx Wave Energy Project (Maui), 1.5 megawatts

* Kauai County landfill gas plant, .8 to 1.6 megawatts

* Hawaii Natural Energy Laboratory concentrated solar thermal project (Hawaii), 1 megawatt

* Kauai Island Utility Co-op, a multi-fuel (biofuel possible) plant.

* Expansion of Oahu’s HPOWER plant or construction of a second waste-to-energy facility

* Hawaiian Electric discussing possible Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion facility off leeward Oahu, 20 to 50 installed megawatts by 2020.

Sources: Hawaiian Electric Co., Kauai Island Utility Co-op, various government agencies and power providers.



Appetite for Electricity

Source:  State of Hawaii Data Book 2006


 Diverse  others

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,, covers environmental issues and new scientific research statewide.