Editor’s note: This is Part 2 of a three-part series on energy and food security by Richard Ha. Read Part 1, Trying to be Safe by Doing Nothing is No Longer Safe , and Part 3, What Works, Works .

At the 2010 Peak Oil conference, held in Washington, D.C., a speaker pointed to a graph showing that oil is used for a very small portion of the U.S. mainland’s production of electricity.

He pointed out that Hawai‘i is responsible for a huge portion of the nation’s oil use. The U.S. mainland uses oil for less than 10 percent of its electrical generation, while Hawai‘i depends on oil for 76 percent of its electrical generation. So when oil prices rise, Hawai‘i’s electricity ratepayers are significantly more affected than mainland electricity ratepayers.

And as oil prices rise, any imported mainland product that has electricity usage imbedded in its production has a cost advantage over the same product produced in Hawai‘i. This is true for ice cream, bakery products and even jams and jellies.

Look at modern poultry production, too. It requires constant electric lighting to maximize egg production. Chicken feeding and egg collection are both automated by long conveyor belts running on electricity. Egg cleaning and sorting are also done by electric motors and conveyor belts. Then the eggs are put in temperature-controlled cooling rooms, which are cooled by electric motors. The higher the electricity rates, the harder it is for local egg producers to compete.

And the less food secure we become.

Look in your favorite supermarket and you will see numerous products that are, and will continue to be, affected by higher electricity costs. The store itself is air-conditioned. There are refrigerated cases in the stores and rotisseries, as well as refrigerated milk, meat and produce coolers in the back. All that use of electricity adds to your food cost as oil prices rise.

Expensive electricity throttles Hawai‘i’s food self-sufficiency, too. People may not immediately think of maintaining the cold chain – a temperature-controlled supply chain – as a place where a significant cost of getting food to their plate occurs. The cooling costs on a farm, at a wholesaler, at a retailer and in the home refrigerator are all affected by electricity costs.

Expensive electricity makes it difficult for small farmers to refrigerate their produce. And then this becomes the basis for complaints that locally grown produce doesn’t last as long. And it becomes the basis for faster product breakdown to occur – which affects food safety. It does not have anything to do with how well the farmer grew the produce, but has everything to do with the cost of electricity to cool the crops.

The higher electricity rates become, the higher the costs of growing food in Hawai‘i become. These costs must be paid by Hawai‘i’s farmers and in many cases cannot be passed on to the consumer.  

As fossil or biofuel oil costs rise, and our farmers’ cost of production also rises, farmers are unable to pass on the increased costs.

Food self-sufficiency involves farmers farming. And if farmers make money, farmers will farm.

So as we look for solutions to our oil dependence, we must also consider the cost of the solution, because it affects our food security and food self-sufficiency as well.

It costs twice as much to produce electricity from oil as it does to produce electricity from geothermal. Currently, as oil prices rise, electricity costs also rise.
But electricity produced from geothermal is reasonably priced (half what electricity from oil costs) and the costs will be stable over time (the Big Island will be over the “hot spot” for 500,000 to 1 million years). This lets us help farmers make money – for as costs to transport food to Hawai‘i rise, our local farmers can benefit by stable electricity costs generated by geothermal.

The more we use geothermal, and the less we use fossil or biofuel oil to generate electricity, the more food secure we become.

About the author: Richard Ha owns Hamakua Springs Country Farms, a 600-acre, fee-simple, diversified Big Island farm. He is also chairman of the board of Ku‘oko‘a, which aims to purchase Hawai‘i’s public utility and convert it to geothermal energy. He posts frequently about farming, self-sufficiency in terms of renewable energy, the Islands’ food security and more on his blog.