In 1988–89, AES Corporation built a 180 megawatt coal plant in Campbell Industrial Park, which currently supplies 20 percent of Oahu’s electricity. The Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Company (HC&S) Puunene power plant on Maui consumes 60,000 tons of coal per year. Gay and Robinson (Kauai) proposed using coal and biomass to produce ethanol. Coal was also used at the Hilo Coast Power Company (1985–2004).

Hawaii’s other major fuel sources are now wind, garbage-to-energy, and geothermal. In 2008 the price of oil rose to $140/barrel, affecting rates for electricity and transportation.

For the U.S., oil accounts for only 2 percent of electricity, but in Hawaii it accounts for 75 percent. Thus we were hit twice. We now export about 10 percent of the State Gross Product to buy foreign fossil fuels: petroleum and coal.

We must change our economic paradigm. Similar to the way a rock dropped in a pond creates waves rippling across the surface, each dollar spent in Hawaii generates $3–4 of local economic activity. Keeping the $6 billion in Hawaii would add $20 billion to the state economy.

Seven paths lead forward: the macro, biofuel, ocean, battery, micro, high tech, and energy efficiency paths. Each path can, but does not necessarily, lead Hawai‘i towards energy independence. They each have unique benefits, costs, winners, losers, and intended and unintended impacts. There is an opportunity cost associated with each path: spending billions of dollars to promote one path precludes spending billions of dollars on each of the other paths.

Hawaii can choose a path, or wait until someone else suggests a path. The process can be planned or haphazard.

To elaborate on just a few of the above paths:

  • The Ocean Path relies on Sea Water Air Conditioning, Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC), and Blow-Hole Wave Energy Conversion Systems to replace all land-based generators.

Sea Water Air Conditioning involves heat exchange between freshwater pipes pulling heat from buildings, and cold seawater pipes transferring the heat to the ocean. Cornell University built a 6-mile intake pipe from a cold lake in upstate New York. A thorough multiyear environmental analysis of the impacts found them to be minimal. The total heat added to the lake over the course of a year is equivalent to the heat that the lake absorbs from one hour of summer sunshine. The Cornell and Toronto systems were installed by Makai Ocean Engineering, a Hawaii firm. O‘ahu could handle six or seven systems, including two for Waikiki, displacing 40 percent of the energy load in urban areas.

The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) is a national utility think tank. Its members represent over 90 percent of the electricity generated by shareholder-owned utilities in the United States. In 2004, EPRI examined wave power, and more specifically, looked in detail at Hawaii’s potential wave power. EPRI found that each island could meet its electricity needs through wave energy. Wave Energy Systems do not involve waves crashing down along reefs and the coastline, but rather ocean swells which provide predictable power.

  • The Battery Path focuses on converting all vehicles from internal combustion engines to electric vehicles, allowing electricity to flow both ways from the grid and the vehicle batteries. Batteries can store night-time wind energy for use during the day. Ten 100-watt light bulbs that are lit for one hour use one kilowatt-hour of energy. That same amount of energy will move an electric car about four miles down the road.

There is no reduction in greenhouse gases emitted by using an electric vehicle on the mainland, because half of the electricity there is generated from coal. However, in Hawaii there is often night-time wind power available that is normally wasted but that could be used to power vehicles. Tawhiri, the wind farm at South Point on Hawaii Island, is able to produce night-time power that is not being used by the Hawaii Electric Light Company (HELCO). In 2007, twelve million kilowatt-hours of wind energy was wasted. By 2008, the amount reached eighteen million kilowatt-hours. Electric vehicles could easily tap into the power grid at night, absorbing the excess energy produced from wind power.

  • The Micro Path is based on small grids powered by rooftop wind and solar, and by reusing vegetable oil to make biodiesel. Each day more solar energy falls to the Earth than the total amount of energy the planet’s 6 billion inhabitants consume in twenty-seven years.

The entire U.S. electricity demand could be met by covering 9 percent of Arizona with photovoltaic panels. Traditional solar panels are flat and convert sunlight into electricity. Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) systems use a parabolic mirror to focus sunlight onto a pipe containing mineral oil. The oil transfers its heat to an adjacent water pipe through a heat exchanger. The water is thus converted to steam which drives a turbine which in turn generates electricity.

Small wind systems could be installed on thousands of rooftops in Hawaii. The advantage of wind is that it is the cheapest renewable energy source of electricity in Hawaii and much of the world. Rooftops could be used for multiple systems: solar water heaters, photovoltaic panels or concentrated solar power, and micro-wind.

The Department of Urban and Regional Planning (DURP) at the University of Hawaii at Manoa is housed in Saunders Hall, where the roof has a solar panel and a micro-wind system. Pacific Biodiesel is making biodiesel from used vegetable oil.

Energy is the cornerstone of sustainability. Hawaii has every natural resource to create our own energy, and an abundance of human resources and technological knowhow to design innovative systems. With the political will, we can become the world’s laboratory for energy innovation.