Some deals sound too good for a small state like Hawaii to pass up.

For example, saving well over $100 million annually for years while improving air quality in the short term amid Hawaii’s broader shift toward renewable energy sources.

That’s the fundamental pitch that Hawaii Gas put forward to journalists in an announcement about liquefied natural gas on Tuesday.

The company shared a just-released analysis — based on a contractually binding LNG tender executives say they have received — calculating that Hawaii could reduce fuel costs by about $1.3 billion by replacing oil with LNG during a 15-year window of time.

Most of the promised savings would involve the generation of electricity, which power plants now produce mostly with a low-sulfur diesel oil blend.

Company representatives also shared calculations that if Hawaiian Electric had used LNG rather than oil to generate electricity last year, it would have saved $132 million in fuel costs. If that money had been saved and distributed among customers, it would come out to nearly $100 for every resident in the state last year.

But that’s not all.

The gas company said that bulk purchases of LNG for electricity, gas and other needs could reduce our gas bills by 25 percent.

And with environmental safety standards slated to rise in coming years, Hawaii Gas representatives said even more expensive fuel may have to be used — unless we switch to LNG. Meaning that a switch to a less-polluting fossil fuel could save even more.

Prices for liquefied natural gas change all the time, so talking about the costs — and potential savings — is almost inevitably a moving target.

That’s what makes the fact that Hawaii Gas sought — and received — binding offers significant, according to Joe Boivin, the company’s senior vice president for business development and corporate affairs.

Hawaii Gas representatives said they received 20 proposals to provide liquefied natural gas, infrastructure and logistics. Those were followed by contractually binding tenders. The gas company says that it is finalizing negotiations with one bidder. Its calculations of savings are based on the numbers in that company’s offer.

But before Hawaii signs on the dotted line, the state would do well to make sure there is the necessary consensus about a 15-year LNG deal in the islands — and that those numbers add up.

Hawaii Gas President and CEO Alicia Moy, left, and Senior Vice President Joseph Boivin put forward their company's pitch for liquefied natural gas on Tuesday.
Hawaii Gas President and CEO Alicia Moy, left, and Senior Vice President Joseph Boivin put forward their company’s pitch for liquefied natural gas on Tuesday. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

There are many potential obstacles. For one, a contract has not yet been signed with the company that put the winning tender forward and Hawaii Gas representatives are, as of yet, unwilling to identify their potential partner.

But even when — or if — a contract is signed, many other obstacles remain. Federal energy regulators and the Public Utilities Commission, which is immersed in hearings to decide whether it will allow NextEra Energy to purchase Hawaiian Electric Industries for $4.3 billion, would have to grant their approval.

Speaking of Hawaiian Electric, most of the savings that Hawaii Gas foresees involve the power company’s production and distribution of electricity. So Hawaiian Electric — or perhaps NextEra, if the acquisition goes through — would need to be a willing partner.

Hawaiian Electric has expressed a deep interest in LNG; but it isn’t clear that the company wants to collaborate with Hawaii Gas. Hawaiian Electric is “in the final stages of our own request for proposals, evaluating LNG suppliers and the potential  to provide the greatest possible savings for our customers,” HECO spokesman Darren Pai said by email.

“We now have a plan to compare against. Let’s compare.” — Joe Boivin, Hawaii Gas’ senior vice president for business development and corporate affairs

Hawaiian Electric’s efforts are focused on using specialized shipping containers to deliver LNG to the power company’s generating stations — a model Hawaii Gas has rejected, partly because the company believes the large number of shipping containers needed might wreak havoc on Oahu’s roads.

But, Pai noted, Hawaiian Electric is “continuing to evaluate the mix of resources that will be needed to meet our state’s energy goals.”

Beyond partnerships between competing utilities, Gov. David Ige made clear at an innovative energy summit in Honolulu last summer that he will actively work against using LNG to generate electricity in Hawaii.

The governor’s fundamental argument is that falling oil prices have reduced the potential positive economic impact of using LNG. He went on to say — and has since repeated in interviews with Civil Beat — that using LNG as a bridge fuel would amount to an unproductive use of human and financial resources that the state could better devote to meet broader renewable energy goals.

So there is no signed contract, no agreement with Hawaiian Electric and a governor who has promised to actively work against using LNG use for energy generation.

And yet, the Hawaii Gas announcement is intriguing on a number of fronts. The company put forward plenty of details about how it hopes to bring LNG to the state — perhaps as early as 2019 — and what it might cost.

“This is the start of a conversation,” said Hawaii Gas President and CEO Alicia Moy, who suggested that the discussion needs to involve Hawaiian Electric, regulators, the independent power producers and other “stakeholders.”

Before launching this conversation, Hawaii Gas commissioned an 18-month examination of the costs and logistical needs involved in delivering LNG to the islands in a 15-year time window.

Such a time frame aims to navigate between a shorter time window that might be too small to be worth the time of LNG providers and a longer window that could get in the way of Hawaii achieving its ambitious 2045 renewable energy goals, according to Hawaii Gas representatives.

Boivin offers data to show the benefits of LNG that his company forecasts for Hawaii over a 15-year period.
Boivin offers data to show the benefits of LNG that his company forecasts for Hawaii over a 15-year period. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The company began looking at alternative fuels about five years ago as part of its efforts to diversify its fuel supply and bolster reliability for customers. That research led its analysts to conclude that LNG could be a viable option for other industries as well, including electricity generation and public transportation, such as buses.

Importing more LNG for other purposes, the company says, would make the gas cheaper — in part by spreading the infrastructure costs around and in part because of bulk price reductions.

Bringing in more LNG to satisfy a broader demand also could facilitate the company’s preferred framework for importing large amounts of natural gas into the islands: a sea-based LNG station.

“Let’s be honest, this is a distraction from our goal of clean energy. We don’t think it is cleaner and we have a lot of questions about the economics of it.” — Jeff Mikulina, executive director of the Blue Planet Foundation

Hawaii Gas looked at two models for bringing in the gas — a floating set-up and a containerized approach like the one Hawaiian Electric is considering, according to the company’s communications consultant Alan Tang. He said they wanted a minimal infrastructure investment that, after 15 years, could disappear.

The system that Hawaii Gas settled on hinges on a floating storage gasification unit, in a vessel that would be docked offshore, near Barbers Point. Ships bearing liquefied natural gas would pull up alongside the vessel and fill its tank before returning to North America.

The moored vessel would pass the natural gas to land through an underwater pipeline. In addition to infrastructure in the ocean, Hawaii Gas representatives said they will need between five and 10 miles of pipeline extensions on land to connect the undersea line to their pipeline that runs from near Barbers Point to Hawaii Kai, and to run to the Kahe power station in Kapolei.

Aside from the projected cost savings, which are sure to be contested, Hawaii Gas’ analysis projects the cost of the temporary infrastructure needed to bring in large amounts of natural gas, restore it from liquid to gaseous form, and connect it to already existing infrastructure, at $200 million.

That’s far less than some other LNG infrastructure estimates.

Hawaii Gas' illustration of how its floating LNG station off Barbers Point would channel gas toward Oahu.
Hawaii Gas’ illustration of how its floating LNG station off Barbers Point would channel gas toward Oahu. 

The $200 million in costs, spread out to customers over 15 years, would amount to 5 percent of the total cost of delivering gas to customers, according to the analysis.

“It really pays itself back to customers in two years,” said Boivin.

Tang said the price of the fuel will be indexed at a shifting level between 18 percent and 26 percent below the cost of oil, depending on various factors.

Critics questioned the supposed savings Hawaii Gas is citing — especially based on numbers from 2015, when oil prices sank throughout the year, rather than now, when a barrel of crude oil sells for less than $30. They also raised environmental questions.

“The exercise they are doing now is crystal ball-gazing about what they can do in the future, while indexing it to oil to get some savings,” said Jeff Mikulina, the executive director of the Blue Planet Foundation, which works to disrupt the fossil fuel industry.

The driving force behind the shift toward renewable energy generation in the islands is the environmental damage caused by fossil fuels, Mikulina said, noting that LNG is one.

“Either way, it is not a climate winner. That is one of our main concerns,” he said. “Let’s be honest, this is a distraction from our goal of clean energy. We don’t think it is cleaner and we have a lot of questions about the economics of it.”

Representatives of Hawaii Gas didn’t pretend to know everything about the future, and especially not what sort of reception their LNG proposal will get, but they noted that at least it offers a benchmark for pricing to see if it makes sense for Hawaii.

“We now have a plan to compare against. Let’s compare,” said Boivin, who argued that his company’s numbers — which are sure to be inspected in greater detail — make clear that Hawaii is choosing not to save by switching from oil to LNG.

His boss put it in other terms. “I don’t think we’re saying this is the solution,” said Moy, but she described it as a “tangible pathway” forward. Just how tangible remains to be seen.

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