Can Hawaii become the world’s first renewable energy/hydrogen economy?

The ingredients are there.

Hawaii’s got renewable energy. Hawaii’s got high energy import costs. Hawaii’s committed to 100 percent renewable energy by 2045.

But Hawaii’s biggest “asset” is its “closed” electricity and land transport system. This is unique in the developed world.

Cars move along Ala Moana Boulevard. Kakaako. 22 may 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

You can’t drive a vehicle to Hawaii from elsewhere, and that’s an advantage when it comes to energy and transportation innovation.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Hawaii’s a series of islands. Motor vehicles can’t be driven into Hawaii from elsewhere. Nor can Hawaii “import” electricity from elsewhere over power lines.

This is a competitive advantage. As a result, Hawaii can implement leading-edge transport and electricity innovations without worrying about backward compatibility.

Exploiting this energy innovation niche will add billions of dollars to Hawaii’s economy. Two developments hold the key:

The first is the pending sale of Hawaiian Electric Co. to Florida-based NextEra Energy. That deal could close next year.

The second is the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation rail project. So far, this poorly planned, over-budget $6 billion mass transit project represents Hawaii’s failure to turn “exceptionalism” into an economic asset.

If it takes the initiative, Hawaii can mandate a turnover of the state vehicle fleet to zero-emission electricity and hydrogen-powered cars by 2025. What’s more, driverless cars are ideally suited to Oahu’s small area, limited roads, slow driving speeds and lack of out-of-state vehicles.

Hawaii’s most populous island of Oahu, where 80 percent of the state’s people live and Honolulu is located, has long copied U.S. mainland-style housing development templates of low-density, single-family homes. Oahu has also built large freeways better suited to a continental economy characterized by infinite space than for a small island where every inch counts.

The result: out-of-reach housing prices and clogged traffic due to poor land utilization. The wholly unsupported hope at this point is that by merely superimposing a mass transit system atop Oahu’s clogged roadways people will be encouraged to leave their cars at home. Characterized charitably, that’s myopic.

The problem is that most potential riders of HART live miles from any of its 21 stations. This is due to suburban sprawl.

But consider the innovations made to date by the likes of Zipcar, Uber, Tesla, Toyota and Google. These advancing horsemen of the new transport economy have trail-blazed vehicle sharing (Zipcar), distributed taxi services (Uber) and electric (Tesla), hydrogen (Toyota) and driverless (Google) vehicles.

These innovations should be more deeply integrated into HART’s 21 stations to get people to and from their homes.

Consider this: the average U.S. motor vehicle is owned for just five to seven years. If it takes the initiative, Hawaii can mandate a turnover of the state vehicle fleet to zero-emission electricity and hydrogen-powered cars by 2025.

What’s more, driverless cars are ideally suited to Oahu’s small area, limited roads, slow driving speeds and lack of out-of-state vehicles. This could also be progressively mandated. Given Google’s record in this regard, driverless cars would probably result in few accidents, lower insurance rates — a net economic gain to the state.

Rail supports located along Kualakai Parkway. Kapolei. HART. 17 june 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

New innovations in energy and transportation are needed to get people to the rail system that is under construction.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Hawaii, as a result of the above, could easily become the first “real world” showcase of a whole new transport era. It just needs to grasp the opportunity.

Doing so would put Hawaii at the intellectual property leading edge of the $1 trillion global car industry. It would give Hawaii a seat at the table of the information technology industry. Those are nice places to be. The future value annuity of this to the state economy would be incalculable.

Just as interesting is Hawaii’s energy system. For instance NextEra, once it takes over HECO, wants to ramp up utility scale renewable energy generation in Hawaii. This is desirable. Oahu’s dirtier energy generation capacity (largely based on imported oil) needs to be retired to meet future clean energy targets.

If NextEra invests in large-scale intermittent renewable energy generation, storage will be needed to manage asynchronous peaks and troughs of supply and demand on Oahu’s isolated grid. This storage problem can be solved using hydrogen as the “battery.”

Oahu has natural gas storage facilities at coastal Barbers Point. Oahu has a gas pipeline that parallels the HART route. Natural gas pipelines can carry hydrogen. Therefore, with Barbers Point as the aggregation, storage and distribution center, hydrogen can load-balance intermittent renewable electricity generation on Oahu.

The opportunities in Hawaii exist in an attractive bundle like nowhere else in the world. In other words, the future is Hawaii’s to lose.

Barbers Point is also ideal for receiving surplus hydrogen generated from renewable energy on the neighbor islands. This surplus neighbor island hydrogen could be delivered to Barbers Point by traditional shipping container. This would be much cheaper than building an interisland underwater electricity grid.

Hydrogen not used in electricity generation on Oahu could be distributed as transport fuel for shared hydrogen-powered vehicles fueled at HART stations. These could be booked in transit by HART’s passengers using HART’s onboard Wi-Fi.

The U.S. military in Hawaii already is driving hydrogen-powered cars around Fort Shafter and Pearl Harbor Naval Base on Oahu. Both will be served by HART stops (Pearl Highlands and Pearl Harbor, respectively).

The Hawaii Hydrogen Initiative, meanwhile, envisages 21 hydrogen fueling stations on Oahu. One proposed station is at Fort Armstrong. That’s virtually across the street from HART’s planned Civic Center stop.

Given the above, the bits and pieces fit together so well it looks like subliminal intelligent design at work.

It gets better. Freed up marginal commercial parking space resulting from increased vehicle sharing can enable this space to be put to higher value use. Take Ala Moana: its vast and cavernous new car parks could become a hydrogen vehicle dispatch depot serving a transport catchment area stretching east to Diamand Head and as far as Hawaii Kai.

At West Loch and Waipahu, land now occupied by low-economic value car dealers could be redeveloped for new medium- and high-density residential development adjacent to convenient transport links. This would create new economic value for the state economy while easing housing cost pressure without worsening traffic.

This in turn will increase employment, investment and the state’s tax take. Result: a virtuous economic circle.

A renewably powered, hydrogen-battery state economy is the way to go if Hawaii’s really serious about a 2045 zero emission state economy. The opportunities in Hawaii exist in an attractive bundle like nowhere else in the world. In other words, the future is Hawaii’s to lose.

If it fails to take advantage of the low-hanging fruit now right before its eyes, the alternative for Hawaii is chronic, long-term HART disease.

This will be caused by an increasing stagnant economy burdened by sclerotic transport, high housing costs and brain drain.

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Columns generally run about 800 words (yes, they can be shorter or longer) and we need a photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to news@civilbeat.com.

About the Author