Hawaii energy officials are raising questions about a recent analysis by Hawaiian Electric Co. that says Oahu can meet state renewable energy goals without using undersea cables to tap neighbor island resources.

We “have no evidence that remotely supports that contention, and it is our current understanding that it is not economically feasible,” Richard Lim, director of the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, told Civil Beat by email.

None of the department’s studies, including those conducted by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and U.S. Department of Energy, show that Oahu could meet its own renewable energy needs, according to Mark Glick, head of the state energy office, which falls under DBEDT.

But HECO’s five-year energy plan, submitted to state regulators last month, concludes that an interisland cable system is not necessary to meet its mandate of generating 40 percent of its electricity from renewable energy by 2030. The utility also says it’s a decade ahead of schedule in meeting the requirement, which is outlined in the 2008 Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative.

HECO spokesman Peter Rosegg said that two of the utility’s computer-assisted energy scenarios indicate that Oahu does have the resources.

Rosegg said the utility is not abandoning the idea of an undersea cable system. HECO still plans to release a bid for renewable energy projects on neighbor islands that would connect to Oahu via interisland cables.

However, HECO’s plan says that “inter-island power is likely not needed” to comply with state energy mandates.

HECO’s analysis has caught policymakers off guard. Until now, a major component of state energy policy has been an interisland cable system to support the high energy needs of Oahu, which hosts 75 percent of the state’s population.

The utility alone has spent more than $7 million in recent years on studies for cable systems and neighbor island wind farms. More then half that cost has been picked up by ratepayers. Those are in addition to studies conducted by the state energy office, also at public expense, as well as energy developers.

“It is a problem that we are seeing wild swings in the utility’s plans between various action plans,” said Doug McLeod, Maui County’s energy commissioner and one of 68 people on a community task force convened by the Public Utilities Commission to help with HECO’s energy plans. “What we are seeing is dramatic changes from draft to draft.”

Much of the doubt about whether Oahu can meet renewable energy requirements centers on the availability of land.

Rosegg said that he doesn’t think HECO has estimates of the amount of land needed on Oahu to reach the renewable energy mandate because there are too many technological variables involved.

But McLeod did his own analysis for one of HECO’s energy scenarios which includes 600 megawatts of wind energy and 800 megawatts of solar energy. He said it would require 5,000 acres of solar panels and 120 new wind turbines standing 500 feet tall. Oahu currently has two wind farms on the North Shore.

HECO attributes the change in Oahu’s energy outlook to a recent call it issued for renewable energy projects on Oahu. The utility received 25 bids and is hoping that the PUC will approve five of them. The bids came in at a combined average of 16 cents per kilowatt hour without factoring in state tax credits, indicating that Oahu could supply large amounts of renewable energy to its grid at a cheaper cost than previously thought.

Lim said that even if Oahu did have enough commercially available technologies to meet renewable energy goals, he doubts that the costs would remain low. He said costs could be prohibitive for projects sited in poor terrain or where there are poor solar and wind resources, as well as projects encountering community opposition due to visual impacts.

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