Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Long View: New Hawaii Energy Pact Could Mean Our Grandchildren Will Be Fossil Fuel Free

Governor Linda Lingle, U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye and HECO's Robbie Alm await start of yesterday's signing ceremony.

As Marshall McLuhan observed nearly five decades ago, the medium is the message. Yesterday’s message-medium was a standing-room-only press conference with remarks by a governor, a U.S. senator, utility executives, a state consumer advocate, a business development director and a U.S. DOE representative, with several other notables mentioned and thanked by name.

The message was unmistakable: “This is important stuff we’re announcing today, and we don’t want you media types to miss it.” The Lingle Administration’s legacy is all about energy; also unveiled this year was the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative.

Judging from the coverage, the media got the message. The Honolulu Star-Bulletin’s main story highlighted in the third paragraph what we also found significant and noted in yesterday’s post – the ban on adding net fossil-fuel-based capacity to the Hawaiian Electric companies’ grids.

That amounts to a cap on fossil fuels – but not carbon fuels – for electrical generation. If existing power plants are converted to biofuels or biofuel plants are built, a like amount of capacity powered by fossil fuels will have to be retired, according to yesterday’s announcement. And the prohibition of new coal-fired generation in the state means the existing AES generation station on Oahu won’t get any bigger and new coal facilities won’t be built.

Big Changes at HECO, HEI

Long-time employees of Hawaiian Electric Company might well be shell shocked by the rapid metamorphosis of their employer. HECO finds itself in a “change or die” syndrome, and it has chosen to change. The new agreement decouples HECO from a kilowatthour sales model. The company’s press release states:

“This decoupling of revenues from sales will remove barriers for the utilities to pursue aggressive demand-response, load management and customer-owned or third-party owned renewable energy systems while giving the utilities an opportunity to achieve fair rates of return.”

Connie Lau, CEO of parent Hawaiian Electric Industries, said HECO will evolve into an “energy services” company. She left for New York last night to speak with HEI investors and will be joined later in the week by HECO executive vice president Robbie Alm to explain the companies’ new direction.

At the urging of this “online journalist" for Alm to amplify on his comments two months ago about encouraging ocean energy developers to prove their technologies in Hawaii, he essentially repeated those sentiments. The mainstream media have yet to carry those comments, so we hope they heard enough to tweak some curiosity. HECO’s press release (not yet posted on its website) lists “renewable energy commitments” and potential projects, including Sea Solar ocean thermal energy conversion (25 to 100 MW) and Lockheed Martin OTEC (10 MW), both tied in with the Kahe power plant.

With Grandchildren in Mind

Those potential OTEC projects – if successful in proving the technology’s viability – probably have more potential to get Hawaii off oil because of their baseload configuration. But “Big Wind,” Governor Lingle’s name for the future wind projects on Lanai and Molokai, dominated the media coverage (Honolulu Advertiser’s page 1 story, KITV, KHNL, KGMB; KHON has no post).

The renewable technologies are projected to receive a big boost thanks to this agreement, which we hope will play out with cost estimates in the months ahead. Cost was a key point missing in yesterday’s announcement that the media picked up on immediately. Hawaii’s goal to eliminate fossil fuel for much of its energy needs seems within reach in the next two decades, but achieving complete fossil fuel freedom is something our grandchildren will enjoy.

The Clean Energy Initiative picked 2030 as a comprehendible target date – just two decades away and a year most of us are likely to experience. But our own grandchildren won’t have reached their 30th birthdays by then. Their generation will look to this century’s midpoint as a target for complete independence from fossil fuels for electrical generation and all transportation, including air travel.

Our generation’s legacy can be their generation’s green bonanza if we manage the transition to renewable energy wisely in these early years of the 21st Century. The new agreement seems like a good start.

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