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Blue Hawaii getting greener every day

 Posted by on October 28, 2009
Oct 282009

By Shermakaye Bass
Green Right Now

(HONOLULU) – Hawaii has found a new place in the sun. With a local in the White House and clean-energy tech booming, this sunny, windy island state is blossoming into an exotic garden of alternative-power innovation with nearly $1 billion in clean energy projects underway. The aggressive  initiatives are driven by history and necessity.

Wind turbines on Hawaii Island (Photo: Hawaiian Electric Light Co.)

Wind turbines on Hawaii Island (Photo: Hawaiian Electric Light Co.)

Necessity, because Hawaii gets 90 percent of its energy from imported oil, while its isolation makes it vulnerable to frequent power outages (no neighbors to send in reserves – until wave power is tapped). Not-so-distant history, because native Hawaiian culture is rooted in respect for nature, a vibe that resonates “take no more than is needed and squander nothing that is taken”.

Currently, islanders pay 25 to 55 cents, per kilowatt hour for electricity – three to five times the national average. Gas prices are the highest in the country.

As solar-tech pioneer and Honolulu-based Sopogy founder Darren Kimura puts it, “We only have about 5 to 7 days worth of energy stored here. And if we were cut off, we’d be stuck. Tourists would be stranded, transportation would stop, food would run out. … We have a very small grid here, and power outages aren’t uncommon.”

Kimura, who just won the Blue Planet Foundation’s Honua (meaning “Earth”) Award for Clean Energy, illustrates his point with a lighter note: “Last year in December, President Obama was out here on vacation, and we had a minor incident and lost power to the entire island. Talk about being at center stage and the lights going off. The President’s visiting and at the house where he’s staying, the power goes out. … The unfortunate reality was (driven home) – how fragile the energy grid is here.”

Fortunately, America’s 44th Commander-in-Chief was born and partly raised in Honolulu; he’s probably used to the outages. Kimura guesses it didn’t freak him out too badly.

But there’s been plenty for Hawaiians to ballyhoo in the news lately, besides ‘ownership’ of a President: In January 2008, during her State of the State address, Gov. Linda Lingle told constituents she would make energy a priority. Within a few days, Honolulu had signed the historic Clean Energy Initiative with the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE), whereby America’s 50th state would shift from a fossil-fuel driven economy to one that buzzed with power from wind, sun, water (and biofuel and geothermal tech and hydrogen fuel…) by 2030. Specifically, the plan calls for Hawaii to get 70 percent of of its power from clean energy – 40 percent from actual renewable power, 30 percent from energy efficiency and consumer conservation.

Since then, several other major policy changes have occurred.

  • Last year, the state passed a law requiring all new homes to have solar-heated water. Jeff Mikulina, executive director of Hawaii’s influential Blue Planet Foundation (started by Blue Planet Software founder Henk Rogers) does the energy math: “We’re building about 5,000 homes a year in Hawaii, and most experts say the measure will save four or five barrels of oil, per household per year,” Mikulina says. So…that’s 20,000 to 25,000 barrels per year that we won’t consume.”
  • In December 2008, California-based Better Place, an alt-energy outfit, announced it would use Hawaii as a test site in setting up an infrastructure for electric cars (Israel, Denmark, Australia and California are other test sites). The plan, agreed to by Hawaii’s utility service, calls for Better Place to build 50,000 to 100,000 recharging and battery-swap stations by 2012; they will be run using renewable energy purchased from the local utility. Various electric-car manufacturers have expressed interest in the plan, and recently Hawaii’s governor signed a law requiring large parking lots to provide additional space for electric cars by 2011. The state hopes to see 10,000 electric cars on the road by 2014. Experts say Hawaii is an ideal place for them, because travel distances aren’t very far (usually less than 100 miles). It’s a series of islands – eight in all, thank you.
  • And most recently, Mikulina – whose name is familiar to many eco-advocates because of his long career with first the Sierra Club’s Hawaii Chapter and now with Blue Planet – points to the Feed-In Tariff, announced by the state’s Public Utilities Commission on Sept. 25th that levels the price-point playing field for alt-energy providers, knocking down hurdles for clean-energy development. (Essentially a feed-in tariff sets a price that utilities must pay to renewable energy providers, removing uncertainties in the market that hinder development.)

So, the groundwork for a clean-energy conversion has be laid, and the sky literally is the limit.

Hawaii Island gets about 30 percent of its power from geothermal (Photo: John Lund, Geothermal Heat Center)

Hawaii Island gets about 30 percent of its power from geothermal (Photo: John Lund, Geothermal Heat Center)

With its sun, wind and surf, Hawaii is ideally positioned for such a sea change. Here, solar energy is a given, wind power a duh, and wave-power possibly just a Hang-Ten away. Not to mention the geo-thermal power contained in all that volcanic activity. In fact, with policy wonks, techno geeks and eco-interests all looking toward the same goal, the Aloha State is poised to become a global force in sustainability, exporting know-how and technology instead of importing fuel and food.

Blue Planet Foundation’s Mikulina and Rogers believe Hawaii can be energy-independent within a decade.

But what, more specifically, makes Hawaii a mecca for alt-fuel seekers while simultaneously making it vulnerable to fossil-fuel peddlers?

“First of all, there’s the geographic isolation of the island,” says Kimura. “We’re one of the most, if not the most, isolated locations in the world. We’re literally in the middle of the Pacific Ocean – 2,500 miles from LA and 4,000 miles from Asia in general… It’s not like it’s convenient to get here (ditto for imported foods and fuels). … We import I’d say 50 to 60 percent of our food, and as a result of that – and importing oil – we export $7 billion of our capital. We spend $7 billion annually for that energy. When you take all of those factors together, the fact is that we have no economic security, and Hawaii needs to move toward an oil-independent, clean energy/fossil-free future. … Also, take into account that the economy here is largely tourist based, and the cost of living is almost two times higher than in  just about every major city in the United States.”

The flip-side, Kimura says, looks better.  “I see two opportunities here. First of all, the opportunity for us to be self-sustaining. We have some of the best wind, some of the best solar, some of the best access to the ocean and to waste-biomass because of our agriculture industry. … All these are natural resources that could be converted into power, or even just fuel for our cars, like biodiesel. I think that’s step one — becoming energy efficient. Step two is exporting our knowledge and our technology. … It might not be mission-critical for others today, but it will be. These problems are magnified in Hawaii, but they become a reality within ten years in other parts of the world. That second point could become a key economic driver for Hawaii.”

All across O’ahu are impressive indicators for the future.

Hickam Air Force Base has a hydrogen fueling station where many of its vehicles – electric-drive vehicles, be they fuel-cell or internal-combustion that burn hydrogen – can fill ‘er up. That was built about three years ago. Now the station is powered by 146 kilowatts of solar power – enough to energize about 30 homes. The 180-watt panels were manufactured and installed by Honolulu based Sunetric. The hydrogen plant itself was a joint venture between the state of Hawaii and the United States Air Force.

Nearer to Waikiki, the historic Punahou School, where President Barack Obama graduated high school, class of ’79, has green shoots sprouting every which way. The circa-1841 campus is home to one of the most aggressive pushes toward sustainability of any school in the nation. Across 76 acres, 44 school buildings are spread, many with solar panels and other signs of sustainability. But since 2004, Punahou has taken greenness to a whole new level, with the opening of the LEED Gold Case Middle School in 2004-2005, and, now with construction underway on the uber-clean Omidyar K-1 Neighborhood and Tennis Complex, which Punahou hopes will receive LEED Platinum upon its completion in 2010-2011.

In 2006, Punahou’s Case Middle School was named “Greenest School in America” by the GreenGuide. It features waterless urinals, photovoltaic arrays, as well as curricula and field-trips that focus on all elements of sustainability, from eating local food to being socially responsible and community driven, to being environmentally active. Oh, and the vending machines don’t have candy.

Over at Sopogy, the company is, to use surfer lingo, throwin’ some serious heat.

Sopogy's Solar Nova Concentrator (Photo: Sopogy)

Sopogy's Solar Nova Concentrator (Photo: Sopogy)

Founded by Kimura in 2002 (one of several clean-energy/eco-friendly companies he’s pioneered over the past 17 years), Sopogy introduced a new product yesterday at the Solar Power International Conference and Expo in Anaheim, Calif. – the first commercially available rooftop Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) collector – called the SopoFlare. CSP’s have previously been designed for deserts, or spread across acres and large fields.

“These are about 30 percent cheaper than traditional solar collectors. And the cool thing is that when we launched the product, we had so many hits on our website that it went down. It’s back up now. But people were freaking out!” Kimura said.

But that’s only the beginning, local entrepreneurs say. A number of new projects are coming online – have actually been announced – that amount to almost a billion dollars worth of clean-energy projects in Hawaii. They span the universe of clean energy, from activated carbon to burning sugarcane to create power, to biodiesel projects to Sopogy’s own steam-energy advances, which use mirrors to intensify the energy of the sun, creating steam and then collecting it.