An important distinction between Energy and Power is necessary. We’ve got extraordinary quantities of energy but we are coming up to significant challenges with power generation. Roughly speaking, if we could capture all of sunlight’s energy in one day, stored it and converted into power, it would cover the entire needs of today’s world for a full year. We’ve got energy but the energy we’ve got can’t be stored and can’t be easily converted into power near the locations where it’s needed for consumption.

We’ve got enough geothermal energy in Hawaii to make the state self sufficient for centuries including the production of fuels for transportation. But we have not developed the means to convert all this Energy into Fuels and Power. So we are both blessed and challenged at the same time. This article is a partial account of the main challenges.

Fossil fuels are not renewable. There will be plenty of them in the next several decades, but their supply will likely be (very) problematic one century from now. This gives us time to implement effective plans but no time to sit on our hands.

The optimistic view says that we have a large number of options. Solar and wind are rather cost-ineffective but there are sweet spots for them such as equatorial desserts and windy peaks and valleys.

Geothermal is a powerful source, but it’s not easy to develop. It takes tens of millions of dollars in exploratory drillings and a lot of risk insurance because sulfur and other poisonous gasses may be exposed. Of course, usable geothermal reservoirs are located in only a few places, usually near active volcanoes.

Nuclear fission, that is, conventional nuclear power is very expensive. Japan and Germany are pulling out of it. Bulgaria, China, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey and some ex Soviet Republics are getting more of it.

Some scientists claim that nuclear fusion is very real but it can only be done with a five plus billion dollar investment because it does not scale down. One such experiment is in the works and US has a share in it. The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor will provide proof of principles but it is not expected to produce significant amounts of net power for distribution.

Biomass and biofuels are particularly promising, particularly for Oahu as a small Public Private Partnership thanks to the city’s Green Bin yard waste program and scrap wood from demolition and debris which is actively sorted out at the PVT landfill). Similar to the H-Power trash incineration plant, a B-Power biomass plant for syngas can be developed. Syngas, short for synthetic or synthesized gas, can be used directly to power a generator or it can be converted to methanol or other similar fuels.

We’re surrounded by the ocean: Ocean waves, currents and tides. So using them for power production seems simple but the challenges are many. The ocean is a hostile corrosive environment for power generators. Rogue waves, storm surges and tsunamis can wreak havoc. Similar concerns apply to an interisland power cable deployment.

To recap, there are many methods to harness Energy and produce Power: Solar photovoltaic, wind, geothermal, biomass and biofuels, ocean waves, currents and tides; in addition to traditional power generation methods such as nuclear, hydro, coal, oil and natural gas.

There is also a pessimistic view which hinges on three real and major pressures: (1) increasing global population, (2) increasing global standard of living, and (3) increasing difficulty to explore energy deposits and develop new power. All three require more power.

The pessimistic view suggests that we’re on a “net energy” decline. We should have worked extensively on alternatives to fossil fuels earlier. Now for example we spend a lot of power to dig out rare earth materials in Mongolia to make inefficient wind turbines. So we are digging a deeper hole because, this theory suggests, the creation of a wind turbine uses a total amount of power X, for materials extraction, manufacturing, transportation, installation and maintenance. During its useful life at an average location the sample turbine may produce only a fraction of X, so its creation and use yields a net energy loss.

Other experts disagree that we are at a net energy loss condition now, but the next 20 years are critical in shaping the global energy policy. The global energy policy developed by 2030 will determine the type of future human kind has in 2100 and beyond. It is certain that the 2100 energy mix will be very different than the 2000 energy mix.

What’s a good plan for Hawaii? Hawaii can utilize abundant geothermal energy to transform into a hydrogen or ammonia and electric economy for long term sustainability, instead of blowing billions in the wind. Supplemental solar photovoltaic (PV) on residential rooftops is a good option as the price per watt has been dropping rapidly.

Ammonia as an alternate fuel “is the only realistic energy solution that makes sense,” said Matt Simmons of the National Petroleum Council. Although ammonia fuel seems like a new idea, it has a long history, from WWII buses to the X15 Rocket plane. The U.S. has a complete production, distribution and storage infrastructure for ammonia today. And it is scalable. Ammonia is a carrier of hydrogen. It is a “safe bet” to the Hydrogen Economy that President Obama strongly advocated and then abandoned. The ammonia/hydrogen path is essential to Hawaii for utilizing its natural geothermal reservoirs.

Natural gas from hydraulic fracturing or fracking is another positive development. It’s so good that Boone Pickens abandoned his “Pickens Plan” for Wind Farms and invested in natural gas. We could import natural gas and run all our buses with it. Like the 10,000 some city buses in Seoul of 18 million people.

Both US Mainland and Hawaii face a serious energy problem. Texas-based energy guru Robert Bryce, author of POWER HUNGRY, insists that “Americans must reject the notion that energy should be scarce and expensive.” The energy situation is rapidly changing from a challenge to a crisis. This is because the real problem in the U.S. is that no one is in charge. In 2009 the U.S. Chamber of Commerce noted that 24 federal agencies and 25 Congressional committees, and the President were “in charge” of U.S. energy policy. Add to this the countless state mandates and initiatives, and the regulatory mess that fuels the crisis is evident.

The national gridlock is an issue for Hawaii, but our state has several special and severe problems:

  1. Extreme electric power price gauging which international oil markets and proposed EPA regulations for oil and coal burning power plants will make increasingly intolerable.
  2. U.S. mainland solutions such as natural gas and nuclear are less promising for Hawaii.
  3. The Jones Act governing US marine transportation restricts Hawaii’s fuel supply.
  4. Absence of a plan for fuel shortages and local fuel production.
  5. Utopian views and policies about clean energy in which cost effectiveness is not even a factor.
  6. Land and development plans intertwined with energy solutions.
  7. Extreme political influence on what is fundamentally a technical problem.
  8. One power monopoly with Gordian tentacles.
  9. Regulators with questionable expertise and motivation.
  10. Hawaii’s extreme NIMBYism due to its natural beauty, cultural resources and strict environmental laws.

What does the future hold for Hawaii? Hawaii with its mandates and high feed-in tariffs is moving in the direction of scarce and expensive energy by incentivizing increasingly larger deployments of costly, intermittent and ineffective power plants which are also too wimpy to affect the oil-based monopoly.

The following three graphs provide a portrait of Hawaii power production. The first graph presents the 1993 to 2009 trend. The 2009 situation is the most recent year for which DBEDT has published data on power generation in Hawaii. Currently we pay three times more on Oahu than average U.S. for electric power. Big Island residents blessed with abundant geothermal energy pay almost four times more than average U.S.

Coal may be unattractive to some, but it is abundant in the US and Australia and is reasonably and predictably priced. Given Hawaii’s sensitivity to oil and need for baseload energy, a second 150 MW coal plant on Oahu is a top priority. At the same time, Big Island geothermal production should be quadrupled.

The second graph presents my approximation to 2025 of the pseudo-green business-as-usual model which puts emphasis on wind, sun and palm oil for Hawaii. We will likely spend billions of dollars for relatively little gain. In fact if population growth continues as in the last decade, if conservation has a modest success, as expected, and if electric vehicles are introduced at a rate of about 1,000 new EVs per year, then we will need 8% more oil in 2025 than in 2009! And we’ll end up with electricity rates five times as high as on the mainland.

The third graph presents my solution which emphasizes coal, geothermal, biomass and residential photovoltaic. It will provide a real reduction in oil demand at a lower cost per added megawatt. My plan does not need an interisland cable costing well over $1 Billion. Oahu can cut its oil dependency substantially with a $1 Billion direct investment in coal, biomass and roof-top PV instead of bringing wind power from Lanai or Molokai.

About the author: Panos Prevedouros is a University of Hawaii professor whose areas of expertise include transportation engineering, traffic analysis and simulation, demand forecasting, and intelligent transportation systems. He has twice run for Honolulu mayor.