Hawaii: The Proposed Symbol of Energy Independence

07/07/2010 03:22 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Hawaii is that proverbial canary in the coal mine regarding Peak Oil and the economy. Our only hope is a global partnership to as quickly as possible help us attain a high level of energy independence. But why should Hawaii be singled out for this privilege?

The reasons are many, but the most compelling is that we are the ideal sustainability test tube: progressive leaders, abundance of renewable options, high cost of energy (an electricity bill 250% higher than the national average, so commercialization can more quickly be attained), relatively small size (less than one half of one percent the population of the Nation, so the investment will be affordable), singular political clout (the most powerful congressional member in Senator Daniel Inouye, and leader of the Free World, President Barack Obama, who was born in this state) and, soon, sheer desperation, and, therefore, motivation. Provided is a golden opportunity for the World to work together with us to create a symbol for sustainability.

Hawaii is blessed with the Sun, tradewinds, heat of the Earth, ocean resources and sufficient rain to grow biomass on irrigated lands recently vacated by the sugar industry. We pay the highest energy prices in the Nation. Ninety percent of the energy we use is petroleum, which is destined to skyrocket in price when Peak Oil occurs.

How are we doing on the development of renewable energy relative to other states? First of all, EIA 2007 data (2008 information will be released later this month) for the country shows hydroelectric power at 2.4%, wind and geothermal are both at 0.33% and solar at .04%. Wind, particularly, should be higher in 2010, but, still, non-hydro renewable energy remains at the noise level.

I selected a cross section of states (click on Planet Earth and Humanity for the full data) and found that when you deduct hydro, Hawaii is doing as well as California and Colorado, but better than all the others. Yet, we remain 94% fossil fueled.

For the future, Governor Linda Lingle proclaimed the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative, touting 70% renewable energy by 2030. This certainly confused me, for also stipulated was 40% of all electricity by 2030 when aviation fuel (about 30% of energy used) might well then still be close to zero and ground transport can only be a huge guess. Conservation is part of this strategy, as it should, but I doubt if we'll use much less energy in two decades.

Hawaii will elect a new governor this Fall, so, in advance, here are my recommendations for his (yes, all three are male) consideration:

1. Your deep sea electric cable project should include the Big Island because geothermal energy, a baseload power source, should be included in the future mix. A quarter century ago I assisted in the planning for a similar venture as there was potential for 500 MW of geothermal.

2. Be sure to determine potential ocean thermal energy conversion (also baseload) sites so the cable can be conveniently tapped at these locations.

3. This deep sea electrical cable will then cost from $2 billion to $3 billion. Can we afford this? Well, capital improvement projects get close to $2 billion annually, so spread over a decade, maybe. There, too, are bonds to float. However, the most sensible proposition is to have our congressional delegation (plus that of Texas and California) and the White House introduce the National Grid Act of 2011, using Hawaii as the first total system site, with Texas as the wind power demo and California for utility-scale solar. It is now becoming obvious that major wind/solar farms are being delayed because of the cost of an accessible smart grid system. We installed the national highway system in the '50's, and where would we be today without our interstate freeways? Now, a network to wheel electricity is clearly our next national need.

4. A larger problem will be ground transportation. Plug-in electric cars seem to be in vogue today, but a direct methanol fuel cell powered transport system makes more sense in the long run. Immediately delete ethanol and terrestrial biofuels (too slow growing, very inefficient and uses too much water). There, though, is something about microalgae, and research should be significantly expanded on this option.

5. Our most vulnerable lifeline is aviation. Tourism is about our only real industry, and when the price of petroleum jumps to $150/barrel, jet fuel will become so expensive that our tourism rate will drop by 50%. Our local economy will go into and stay in deep depression for many decades, for there are no substitutes on the commercial horizon. Do everything in your power to insure for both a substitute jet fuel and a next generation sustainable aircraft. The former will take more than a decade, and the latter, maybe a generation, and more. We might have time, though, as the Chicago Mercantile Exchange lists the price of crude oil at less than $90/barrel in December of 2018. But how often have we been surprised by sudden spikes? Very few saw $147/barrel oil coming until it happened. And, Peak Oil could well be just around the corner.

I can warn you that TIME should be your greatest concern. If Peak Oil never occurs, Hawaii and the rest of the World will only be thankful. So we guessed wrong. Yet, this embarrassment will mostly result in more locally produced clean energy, which will only help our economy in the future. What are the odds, though, for petroleum to remain under $100/barrel for the next quarter century?