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Hawaii as a Microcosm in the Study of Peak Oil

Scott Cooney | Thursday March 10th, 2011 | 4 Comments

Hawaii became the last state to enter the union of the United States in 1959, but may become the proverbial canary in the coal mine for the U.S. in the transition to a clean economy. The state’s isolation presents both challenges and opportunities for its policy makers and business community on the energy front. On one hand, high shipping costs should mean that locally produced goods would have a tremendous advantage over imports. On the other hand, historically inexpensive oil has created an economy based almost entirely on path dependencies and inertia in decision making. Long ago, the state committed to importing goods rather than investing in manufacturing infrastructure, as a result, generators burn oil for energy and renewables look comparatively expensive.

This path dependency, and the culture it has created, present significant hurdles for the state as it looks to transition to a clean economy. Consider:

  • The state has committed to 70% clean energy by 2030
  • Currently, despite significant resources in solar, wind, geothermal, and wave energy, clean energy accounts for less than 10% of the state’s energy, with the balance largely created by burning imported oil, costing the state $7 billion annually in money it could reinvest in its own infrastructure
  • Despite a terrific climate and rich soils, the state imports 85% of its food

It appears everyone understands the problems, with even the Republican candidate for Governor in last fall’s election trumpeting his commitment to a green economy for the island state. On the surface, it appears all the pieces are in place for a transition, but how will the state overcome its inertia and existing infrastructure?

Consider the electric vehicle dilemma for the state’s main population center, the island of Oahu and the city of Honolulu. It would appear, on the surface, that this would be the perfect laboratory for electric cars, as range anxiety can hardly exist on an island this size. The state recently committed to being the first with statewide electric vehicle recharging stations. But when the electricity for those charging stations comes from burning imported oil, the conversion efficiency alone actually means that those cars are burning more oil than a traditional internal combustion engine vehicle. Proponents suggest that getting these charging stations in place and building an infrastructure can mean that when the state does get to 100% clean energy, that all the island’s cars will be running emission free.

Perhaps…but by then, won’t the technology for electric vehicle charging simply exist in everyone’s garage and anywhere where there’s a traditional 3 prong outlet? Some might argue that this money would be far better spent on creating green energy sources and local food production now, betting on the electric vehicle technology to improve and simplify over time.


Scott Cooney is the author of Build a Green Small Business (McGraw-Hill), and will be covering Hawaii’s transition to a sustainable economy. Questions/Comments/Suggestions for this series, feel free to get in touch with Scott–Scott [at] GreenBusinessOwner.com.

Follow GreenBusinessOwner.com on Twitter.com/GreenBizOwner


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  • Axel Huset

    Hawaii is slooooooooooooow. As obvious as the need is to anyone who takes the time to look, changing things in Hawaii is going to take forever. The state’s culture is slightly less backward than that of West Virginia. Junk food is the default.

    Thean again, talk about an opportunity! Hopefully these guys can get it going to a point where there’s no going back.

  • HawaiiHippie

    The rich love to make the poor suffer; it’s a dichotomy – in order for some to be filthy rich, others have to be in crushing poverty… It’s not that Hawaii is sloooooow, it’s that the politicians are greedy butt-buddies of real estate people who want the rents to stay sky-high.

    What better way to ensure an apathetic populace than to work them like dogs so they’re too tired to think of utopias. We’re too tired even to think of a non-existent future vacation.

    All the perfect agrivultural lands are given away to jack-holes who want to build more housing for the rich…

    If we are the canary, we’re all screwed big-time. This place is just like the South. Apathy and union-politics and good ‘ol boy backslapping b.s.

    • HawaiiHippie

      Yeah, that’s why locally-grown food is 2-3 times MORE expensive than stuff that gets shipped in from 3,000 miles away! Land price/rent kills us here… $5.00 for a gallon of milk is average. We are ‘beautiful’ but not sustainable at all.

      After peak oil most of America will be homeless in tent-cities or their cars… Without an economy there’s no rent. And mortgage is just a fancy name for rent! Life in a Van is America’s affordable housing… Food is the tricky part. No land, no food.

    • Rabbit

      “The rich love to make the poor suffer”

      Come on man. Statements like that are what make people suffer.

      You’re certainly correct that politicians in Hawaii are in the pockets of real estate, but I don’t see that as related to better fuel systems or better food systems at all. At the end of the day people need to take responsibility for themselves – Hawaii has plenty of land to grow phenomenal produce, but how many CSAs are there? next to none because the people (especially the natives) would rather eat Taco Bell. You can only blame yourselves for that!