Mondo Waves, Ancient Gods in the Mix as Hawaii Heads Towards 70% Renewables

(wind turbines on the Big Island)

There are many features of Hawaii that make the 50th state utterly different from the other 49. Probably one of the most obscure, however, is that it generates nearly 80% of its electricity from imported oil, mainly from Indonesia. When oil prices shot up in 2008, consumers in the state were paying around 50 cents per kilowatt hour — five times the national average.

The state’s tenuous reliance on oil has put added momentum behind the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative, launched in January 2008, which calls for the state to generate 60-70% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030, through a combination of new development and energy efficiency measures.

But as planners across the country have found, switching to renewable energy is not as simple as planting wind turbines and solar panels, even when the impetus behind it is pressing. 

The Gods Must Be Crazy

In a state blessed (if that’s the right word) with an abundance of volcanoes, geothermal power would appear to be an obvious way to reduce energy dependence. But volcanoes are sacred to native Hawaiians, who see them as symbols of Pele, Goddess of fire, and founder of Hawaii. In the 1980s the Pele Defense Fund was established to to protect religious gathering rights in the rain forest on the Big Island, and according to the New York Times, the fund, quite understandably, “finds geothermal energy projects sacrilegious.”

Development has still managed to move forward. Ormat generates 30 megawatts of geothermal energy on the Big Island, and is looking to expand.

Linking the Island Chain

Other, much more modern problems beset Hawaii’s attempts to switch to renewable energy. The capital, Honolulu, is on Oahu, but some of the richest sources of renewable energy are on smaller, more rural islands like Maui, with its mondo waves, and Lanai, with strong winds. Sharing that power across the island chain will require building expensive underwater cables, construction of which has already begun.

Fluctuating wind, wave and solar power also means each island has to come up with multiple back up resources. “The whole trick is making the system work in the right way, like conducting an orchestra,” Bob Gilligan, G.E.’s vice president for transmission and distribution, told the Times.

Abundant Natural Resources

Besides geothermal, Hawaii has its world-renowned waves, which Oceanlinx plans to turn into 2.7 megawatts of electricity in a new plant scheduled for completion in 2011. The Aloha State also has great wind resources, potentially 1000 megawatts.

While there is not enough available land to make large-scale solar power projects feasible, new building codes require all new homes to have solar thermal panels on the roof.

A Better Place for A Better Place

Hawaii’s unique geography also makes it ideal for another green technology: electric cars.

Because the state is divided up into 8 main islands, all less than 100 miles across, the Aloha State is ideal for electric vehicles, which typically have a range of between 50 and 100 miles before needing to recharge. A Better Place, the electric vehicle services company, recognized this natural market early on, and is rolling out EV charging stations state-wide. They won’t even have to rely on their controversial battery swapping technology.

Nowhere to Go but Green

Thirty years ago, Hawaii implemented a similar renewables program that went nowhere. This time, the people of Hawaii, and their Republican governor, Linda Lingle, say they’re serious about making the switch. “I feel strongly that the state and our major utility can and must continue finding common ground in moving forward and taking decisive and bold steps toward an energy-independent Hawaii,” said Lingle, at the official announcement of the Clean Energy Initiative.

With oil prices expected to rise in the future, they don’t have much choice.

BC (Ben) Upham is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He has written for the New York Times, and was a writer and editor for News Communications, Inc., a local paper consortium serving Manhattan. When he's not blogging on green issues -- and especially renewable energy -- he's hiking in the Angeles Mountains or hanging out at El Matador.