Faced with a growing awareness that Hawai‘i’s 90 percent reliance on imported petroleum to provide our transportation and electrical generation needs is unsustainable, more than 250 people attended last week’s Maui County Energy Expo, “Green Power, Green Future.” Two days of panel discussions and presentations at the Grand Wailea highlighted a myriad of possibilities for renewable energy.
Enthusiasm charged the symposium, and Mayor Charmaine Tavares even remarked that the expo had left her “energized.”
Yet it was also clear that governmental and industry hurdles make conversion to clean, sustainable energy sources an uphill battle. Top-down decisions made by Hawaiian Electric Company (HECO) and its subsidiary Maui Electric (MECO) may not be leading its rate-paying public in the wisest directions, given the abundant choices now available.
Though a regulated industry with oversight by the Public Utility Commission (PUC), HECO has nevertheless enjoyed a near-monopoly status as a public utility in the Hawaiian Islands. Their parent company, Hawaiian Electric Industries (HEI), holds worldwide assets of nearly $10 billion, including American Savings Bank, the third largest financial institution in Hawai‘i. HEI is also invested in electrical generation in Guam, China, the Philippines and elsewhere.
But all those corporate assets and nearly $2.5 billion in annual revenues haven’t helped the consumers very much: Hawai‘i customers endure the highest electrical rates in the U.S. at more than 30 cents per kilowatt-hour.
In his opening remarks, County Council Chair Riki Hokama said the conference is “timely and should be tailored to our local conditions and resources.” He reminded the audience that the state mandate has required 10 percent ethanol in our gasoline since April 2006. But 18 months later, we still have no local ethanol production and now are importing two fuels instead of one.
“We need to create homegrown solutions to sustainable energy practices,” Hokama said, citing Pacific Biodiesel as one homegrown business.
Panelist Kelly King of Pacific Biodiesel related that her company’s biodiesel produced from used cooking oil is currently 40 cents cheaper than petroleum diesel. She advocated local, sustainable sources for biodiesel production, such as those instituted at plants in Texas—where the purchase of cottonseed oil helped bolster the industry—and in Nevada with locally grown canola.
King suggested that we expand gradually into biofuel crop usage, rather than open up a pipeline to a third imported fuel source.
Yet opening a palm oil pipeline to Indonesia and Malaysia is exactly the course HECO and MECO are taking. The utility must know that one of the quickest ways to meet the state provisions in Hawai‘i’s Renewable Portfolio Standards and Act 234, Relating to Greenhouses Gasses, is to cut emissions at their diesel-burning generating plants, which comprises 93 percent of Hawai‘i’s electrical generation.
But importing palm oil from Southeast Asia flies in the face of a Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism (DBEDT) report titled Hawaii Energy Strategy 2000. That report cited Indonesia was the source of 31 percent of our petroleum imports “despite considerable political and social unrest.”
Other sources of petroleum imports are Alaska, Australia and China. It’s noteworthy that as long as Hawai‘i is connected by air travel, we will continue to import petroleum. Much of the crude oil imported to Chevron and Tesoro refineries winds up processed into jet fuel and gasoline.
On Maui, the archaic Kahului Generating Station is grandfathered to burn cheap, high-sulfur Number Six diesel, spewing emissions over Kahului that would be outlawed in any modern power facility. But according to MECO President Ed Reinhart, there are no current plans to retire it, even when they construct a new 20-megawatt facility at the Maui Waena site on Pulehu Road, scheduled for 2011. In all, 100 megawatts are forecast for that site by 2018, all produced by combustion turbines burning liquid fuel.
Keynote speaker Ramsey Taum of the University of Hawai‘i’s School of Travel Industry Management was one of the conference highlights. Interweaving Hawaiian language, legend, culture and values, he noted that the common sense needed in our current choices “ain’t so common.” He said that as we continue to invite 7.5 million visitors yearly to share our poi bowl of provisions, we strain our limited resources.
He suggested preparing oft-mentioned “carrying capacity studies” for the islands. “Once we figure out those numbers we become accountable to them,” he said. He urged us all to develop “caring capacity,” which he said amounted to malama‘aina, or stewardship of our land and resources.
Ray Starling of Makila Energy Group talked about the challenges of refurbishing a hydroelectric facility in Kauaula Valley in West Maui, in conjunction with Makila Hydroelectric group. Online for just a few weeks before last October’s earthquake damaged their Allis-Chalmers turbine, they’ve also been besieged by a fire and copper theft. He said they planned to have a proper Hawaiian blessing very soon.
Lee Jakeway of Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar (HC&S) described two small hydro projects, the Kaheka Plant, built in 1924, and the smaller Paia Plant dating back to 1912. He said the first electric lights on Maui date back to 1881, when bagasse-fueled boilers at Claus Spreckels’ mill allowed them to process sugar after dark.
Jakeway mentioned studies for HC&S to produce ethanol. Should a technology for cellulosic ethanol production become reliable and cost-effective, it could mean an end to cane burning. But parent company Alexander & Baldwin has so far made no commitment.
Answering a question from the audience, Jakeway said HC&S burns about 60,000 tons of coal yearly, and 100,000 dry tons of bagasse. Excess energy above what’s needed at the mill is then sold to MECO.
Marco Mangelsdorf of the Hawai‘i PV Coalition said state and county officials can use solar PV systems through power purchase agreements. He recommended issuing Requests For Proposals to have systems installed on county buildings.
He noted that Maui leads the way in the state with the most individuals taking part in net-metering programs, and also suggested that the PUC increase the upper amount customers may produce to 100 kw. Currently the program is only available to provide energy credits to those producing five kw or less.
Sierra Club Chair Lance Holter made the case for green, not mean energy, advocating local sources for fuels. He detailed the worldwide rainforest destruction needed to open new acreage for biofuel crops. He shared satellite photos of 1,800 fires from slash and burn clearing in Sumatra. That region has had more than 11,000 fires this year.
Dr. Peter Kalish of Oceanlinx Technology in Australia impressed the audience with his presentation of wave energy technology. Comparing the process to compressed air forced through blowholes, a patented two-way turbine is turned by the air pushed through, and again as it’s drawn back.
Kalish called the wave energy system “the Holy Grail of renewables.” He said that the floating platform is generally located a mile offshore, so that there’s little visual impact, and electricity is pipelined to shore. With working prototypes in both Australia and Rhode Island, he said they are in the permitting process to harness the wave energy in a location on Maui’s North Shore.
Mark Sheehan, a past-president of Maui Tomorrow Foundation, moderated the liveliest panel of the expo. Sheehan reminded the audience that Maui Tomorrow had co-sponsored a Sustainability Conference and “environmental dream team” of Hunter and Amory Lovins of Rocky Mountain Institute, Paul Hawken, Ray Anderson, David Brower and William McDonough 10 years ago at the same hotel. The Grand Wailea, he noted, is still the island’s second largest power user (the Department of Water Supply is number one).
The panel’s topic, “Meeting Hawai‘i’s Renewable Portfolio Standard,” was addressed by PUC Commissioner John Cole, MECO’s Ed Reinhart, Warren Watanabe of the Maui County Farm Bureau (MCFB) and BlueEarth Biodiesel’s Landis Maez.
While stating that MCFB “strongly supports biofuel efforts,” Watanabe responded to a question about revenues to local producers by saying, “If it can’t generate profits to the local farmer, it’s not going to happen.”
Fast-talking Maez said his company is pursuing long-term contracts with growers on the Big Island and Oahu “and a couple on Maui.” He conceded that they would use “interim feedstock”—palm oil—until a local source is available.
Ironically, The Maui News headline on the first day of the expo reported an oil spill at Kahului harbor from an inactive pipeline: the same pipeline BlueEarth Biofuels wants to reactivate to receive palm oil for.
HECO seems undaunted in their quest to bring vast quantities of Indonesian palm oil into the state, as evidenced by the continuing public relations spin they put on the situation (see the letter on page 5 from HECO’s Peter Rosegg). Citizen efforts to change their chosen course will likely continue, through input to the PUC and during BlueEarth’s Environmental Impact Statement preparation.
It also may come through a U.S. Department of Energy Request For Information (RFI), announced by the agency’s Deputy Assistant Secretary, William Parks, Jr. Spurring a murmur of excitement throughout the ballroom, Parks described the initiative as “a willingness to invest in change.”
He said the RFI seeks stakeholder input for policy and research and development in Hawai‘i. It could help promote federal, state and local actions and investment that would make Maui and Hawai‘i a testing ground for advanced renewable energy technologies.
Keynote speaker Taum described Hawai‘i, with all its imported food and fuel, as a life raft waiting to be rescued. Perhaps the DOE’s initiative to assist our shift towards sustainability is the life preserver we’ve been awaiting. MTW