HONOLULU – The goal of breaking Hawaii’s addiction to shipped-in oil first took vague shape during a ceremony in the governor’s executive chambers, with lofty speeches and frequent applause but few specifics.
The ceremony featured a broadly worded deal between the state and federal government to work together toward a so-called clean energy future. The agreement lacked details or the force of law, and it seemed to have all the substance of a government report destined to gather dust.
Almost three years later, however, the initiative launched in the Governor’s Office that day has helped support dozens of energy programs that have laid the groundwork for the nation’s most oil-dependent state to potentially become its most energy self-sufficient.
It will take at least a few more years before a major influx of renewable energy puts a dent in Hawaii’s heavy oil usage, but the state is making visible progress.
Tall wind turbines are sprouting across the islands. Residents and businesses will soon be able to sell homegrown solar power back to the grid. Charging stations for incoming electric cars are being built – by law, at least one per 100-space parking lot by the end of next year.
A state law passed last year requires Hawaii’s electric utility company to get 40 percent of its power from renewables by 2030 while reducing projected electricity consumption by 30 percent. Currently, the state gets about 10 percent of its energy from renewables, near the average amount of renewable energy production nationwide.
These policies have created the structure for how to convert from fossil fuels to limitless electricity sources, a process that creates a framework for private energy investment without much direct government spending.
”The path we were on was not one we could sustain,” Republican Gov. Linda Lingle said in an interview, as she prepares to leave office next month. ”We had to be transformational. It couldn’t be incremental any longer.”
Despite Hawaii’s abundant wind, sun and geothermal resources, the islands suffer the nation’s highest average gas prices, at $3.52 per gallon of unleaded fuel Thursday, according to AAA’s Fuel Gauge Report, in large part because of fuel shipping costs to the isolated islands.
One of the state’s initial steps was to get its electric utility company, Hawaiian Electric, on board by removing its profit motive to sell more and more power. Until the utility wanted to save energy, the state as a whole also would have a hard time cutting back.
That plan was accomplished in September, when state regulators ruled that the utility will get paid a guaranteed amount of money regardless of how much electricity it sells. The decision is intended to make Hawaiian Electric more of a power distributor, long term, than a power producer.
”You needed to have a different financial model for the utility if you were going to agree to this set of policies inherent in the clean energy agreement,” said Robbie Alm, executive vice president for Hawaiian Electric.
When combined with another regulatory decision allowing individuals to get paid for producing their own power, the utility is becoming more of an electric middleman than a power pusher.
With this structure in place, Hawaii should be able to add energy from its strong winds, eternal sunshine, geothermal plants and waves to the electric grid while using less power derived from oil. Hawaii exports about $6 billion a year – 10 percent of its total annual economic production – to buy foreign oil.
”There’s no instruction manual for how to convert a 45 million-barrel a year habit into energy independence,” said Jeff Mikulina, executive director for the Blue Planet Foundation, which supports renewable energy initiatives. ”We can put the right structures in place to head toward our preferred future.”
While Hawaii has made strides toward enabling additional renewable power to come online, it still lags behind the rest of the nation in integrating energy storage and smart-grid technologies that would allow the power utility to handle a broad growth of intermittent power sources such as solar and wind, he said.
An expansion of smart-grid electric technology was delayed by state regulators in July until they see a more detailed plan for how it would work and what benefits it would provide to consumers. In the meantime, smart-grid test projects are planned or ongoing on Maui, Oahu and Kauai.
The big boost in renewable use could come in a few years if large wind farms are built on the islands of Lanai and Molokai, and then their energy pumped to power-hungry Oahu through an envisioned $1 billion undersea cable, with its cost likely borne by electricity consumers.
Environmentalist Henry Curtis is skeptical of the idea because it’s costly and ignores the potential for more locally produced power.
”It will be expensive and it will be focusing on having the Neighbor Islands bail out Oahu,” said Curtis, director for the environmental group Life of the Land.
A $2.9 million environmental study of the cable is expected to be completed in 2012, and the cable could be built by the end of 2014 if everything goes smoothly.
Many states could learn from Hawaii’s example of creating the government structure that provides incentives to private power production and removes utilities’ profit motive to use increasingly more electricity, said Steve Lindenberg, senior adviser for renewable energy with the federal Department of Energy.
Only a few states currently have set up these kind of regulations so far, although they’re more common in Europe.