Hawaii says Aloha (Greetings) to clean, renewable energy
Jun 1, 2009 - Robynne Boyd - Scientific American
MAKANI FARM: Hawaii hopes to get 40 percent of its energy from renewable resources, like this wind farm in Hawi on the island of Hawaii.
COURTESY OF HAWAIIAN ELECTRIC COMPANY
Last January, Hawaii signed an agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) that would make the Aloha State the country's most aggressive in pursuing renewable energy. By 2030, it plans to obtain 70 percent of its power from clean energy (40 percent from renewables and 30 percent from energy efficiency). Outstripping California's goal of 33 percent by 2020, the Hawaii initiative is a green light for clean-tech experts and enthusiasts to set up shop in the heart of the Pacific and may become a blueprint (or greenprint) for the rest of the country.
The ambitious scheme, which draws on the DoE's technical and financial assistance, may help Hawaii unshackle itself from the financials of fossil fuel. For 90 percent of its power, the state relies on imported oil, resulting in electricity that costs five times more than the national average of 11 cents per kilowatt-hour.
"We are the most insecure state in the U.S., because so much of our energy is shipped in," says Theodore Liu, director of Hawaii's Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, one of the key players in implementing the 70 percent goal. "If for some reason our supply is disturbed by natural or man-made causes, we can't just plug into the mainland's grid. And so we are doing this for energy security, because we spend close to 10 percent of our GDP shipping money to foreign countries for oil, and because it will lower the cost of electricity, [as well]." Electricity generation also accounts for one third of the state's carbon dioxide emissions.
To gain energy sovereignty and meet its 40 percent renewable energy goal, Hawaii plans to plug into its famed, but as of yet unexploited, natural resources. Over the next couple of decades, the continuous trade winds, vast ocean swells, brilliant sunshine and broiling heat from geothermal vents will feed 1,000 megawatts of electricity into the island of Oahu's grid. Most of that megawattage—700 to be precise—will be incorporated over the next five years.
The largest contributor will be makani, or wind. Two proposed farms on neighboring Molokai and Lanai islands will generate a total of 400 megawatts of electricity, approximately 25 percent of Oahu's total generation capacity. Power from the farms would travel via an undersea cable to Oahu, where 70 percent of the state's population (905,000 people) live. Two 30-megawatt wind farms are already churning out carbon-less power on Maui and the island of Hawaii.
Thanks to strong offshore breezes, the turbines rotate quite regularly. Wind developers like to see them have a capacity factor of 30 percent, a measure of the average amount of energy delivered, but "we've found the winds to be very consistent with a capacity factor around 50 percent," remarks Harry Saunders, president of Castle & Cooke Hawaii, Inc., which owns most of the island of Lanai. The proposed 12,000-acre farm may go online in 2012.
A smattering of other technologies will deliver the remaining megawatts into the grid. Among the tried-and-true techniques is the solar photovoltaic farm; one already provides 500 kilowatts with the goal of delivering 1.2 megawatts by this summer. Tapping into geothermal energy should pipe in another eight megawatts. More novel technologies include one venture involving a 20-megawatt ocean thermal plant that uses the temperature difference between the Pacific's warm surface water and its cooler deep water to drive a heat engine. This prototype would be the first of its kind and cost around $200 million.
The initiative also includes a provision to address individual actions—namely, by overhauling the way people drive in Honolulu. Better Place, a Palo Alto, Calif., company, will build an electric vehicle (EV) network comprising charging and battery exchange stations, each powered by renewable energy. The network could be in full operation by 2012.
The less costly component of the clean energy initiative is energy efficiency. The state's main utility, the Hawaiian Electric Company, has agreed to a number of measures to reach the 30 percent efficiency goal, including increasing the adoption of solar water heating. The utility would install this equipment as well as advanced meters to provide customers greater control of their electricity use. They would also decouple revenues from sales like California does. This enables a utility to be compensated, instead of financially penalized, for encouraging energy savings (which effectively cuts income). By decoupling, they can raise rates or charge a flat monthly fee. Even so, a consumer's bill would remain largely unchanged, allowing the utility to reap a higher profit from fulfilling customers' lower energy demands at the same rates.
When all is said and done, Hawaii will be much different and better off, says Jeff Mikulina, executive director of the Blue Planet Foundation, an organization based in Honolulu that envisions ending the use of carbon-based fuels on Earth beginning with Hawaii. "You'll see a lot fewer power lines, more rooftops covered with photovoltaics, and people driving to work in their EV," Mikulina forecasts. "And there will be $5 billion or $6 billion circulating in our economy because we're not shipping it away for oil." Hawaii certainly seems ready to become even more of a paradise.