Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s administration is moving decisively toward importing liquefied natural gas for Hawaii’s electricity needs. But this doesn’t mean state officials are easing up on the push for renewable energy.

In an interview with Civil Beat, Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz expanded upon a recent letter he sent to the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission outlining the administration’s position.

“We are no longer assessing whether LNG makes smart public policy,” he told Civil Beat. “We are trying to figure out what it takes logistically and what we need to do to establish that.”

Hawaiian Electric Co. and the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute are currently conducting studies that will determine a working plan for importing LNG, said Schatz. The studies, set to be completed by the end of the year, will help determine a timeframe, budget and the infrastructure needed for natural gas.

Hawaii is almost completely dependent upon oil for its electricity needs. Since 2008, state energy policy has revolved around a mandate to transition to 40 percent renewable energy by 2030 and reduce electricity consumption by 30 percent.

But in January, Abercrombie threw natural gas into the energy mix during his State of the State speech, catching many in the energy sector off guard. Blue Planet Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to eliminating fossil fuel use, has raised objections to the plan, citing the controversy surrounding fracking on the mainland and greenhouse gas emissions. Nationally, the Sierra Club has taken a firm position against the use of natural gas.

But Schatz said that LNG was the best strategy for reducing energy costs for Hawaii residents who pay triple the national average.

“If you really want to drive down costs as opposed to slice at the very margin, burning oil for base load energy is what is costing our customers so much,” he said.

The issue of Hawaii’s energy costs took on particular urgency following the the 2010 Japanese tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster that prompted the country to take its nuclear power plants off line. Monthly electricity bills in Hawaii subsequently spiked by 50 percent, according to HECO data. While oil prices have fluctuated nationally, Hawaii’s prices have remained high because Japan is now competing for the same type of low-sulfur fuel oil that is used in Hawaii, say experts.

Meanwhile, on the mainland natural gas prices have hit an all-time low, averaging about one-fourth the cost of oil. But critics have questioned whether the price will remain that way. And for Hawaii, a particular concern when it comes to price is the Jones Act, which requires shipping between U.S. ports to be done on ships that are U.S. built, owned and manned.

The cost of a domestic LNG tanker, which hasn’t been built in the U.S. since the 1970s, could be double that of a ship from South Korea, a world leader in the trade, according to Larry Persily, a natural gas expert, in an analysis submitted to Civil Beat in August.

But Schatz said that even with the Jones Act, the price of natural gas will still be lower for residents.

“Right now the savings that would be incurred as a result of moving to LNG are so great that we could comply with the Jones Act and still save significant amounts of money for consumers,” he said.

Renewable energy advocates have worried that switching to natural gas, which the administration has termed a medium-term solution to the state’s energy needs, will distract the state from the push for clean energy. But Schatz said that renewable energy remained the state’s top priority.

In a letter to the PUC commissioners, Hermina Morita, Mike Champley and Lorraine Akiba, he encouraged “triaging” renewable energy contracts “in order to manage an overwhelming workload.” The PUC has shouldered an increasing amount of responsibility as it takes a leading role in directing Hawaii energy policy.

And while there continues to be public debate surrounding the best sources of energy for Hawaii, Schatz said that the PUC couldn’t wait for those discussions to culminate.

“There is conversation within the community that supposes that we can configure an almost ideal energy strategy, that we can’t proceed until we can imagine this system and prove it out,” he said. “And that’s just unrealistic.”

Part of the debate has centered around whether Hawaii should wait for the commercialization of such sources as ocean thermal energy conversion and wave energy, or advances in battery storage technology that allow for the use of more solar energy, before deciding on a path forward.

Schatz said it is also important to move forward on the larger renewable energy projects, including an interisland cable system, designed to provide electricity to Oahu, where the majority of the population lives.

“The interisland cable remains critical — it must be done right, but not postponed unnecessarily,” he wrote to the PUC.

Undersea cables were proposed three decades ago, primarily for tapping the Big Island’s geothermal resources for the benefit of Oahu. But the plan went nowhere. Schatz conceded that Hawaii has a history of failure when it comes to implementing big projects.

“I think we have to prove that we are worthy of doing big projects. And I think that the future that has been shown, whether with the Superferry, or the current frustration of proponents or opponents of rail, is when government undertakes big projects, it gets in a hurry and then it trips,” he told Civil Beat. “And so we are going to move expeditiously, but we are going to try very hard to make sure we do so obeying both the letter and spirit of the law and respecting the community. That doesn’t mean that at the proper time that we aren’t going to have to agree to disagree. But I think a lot of the frustration from community members comes from just not being listened to and not being heard.”

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