Friday, November 7, 2008

HECO, Blue Planet Hit the Road Again Promoting a Hawaii Powered Exclusively by Renewable Energy

The headline may overstate it a bit as far as Hawaiian Electric’s Robbie Alm is concerned, but that’s what entrepreneur Henk Rogers is fighting for. The two have become a “traveling truth team” about Hawaii’s extraordinary dependence on fossil fuel and the imperative to develop renewable energy alternatives here as quickly as possible.

Alm and Rogers made an impression the first time they spoke to a Nature Conservancy of Hawaii gathering a few weeks ago and were invited back for a repeat performance at breakfast yesterday. Entrepreneur Rogers (of Tetris fame) created the Blue Planet Foundation last year with a super aggressive mission to end fossil fuel use on the planet, beginning with Hawaii.

What’s extraordinary about their road show is that Alm – executive vice president of Hawaii’s largest electric utility, which in years past would have made him “Mr. Conservative” – is nearly as provocative as Rogers in advocating massive changes for his company. Here’s a summary of their remarks:

Rogers: No Rest in Paradise

The digital game pioneer led off by coaxing applause from his audience about Barack Obama’s election to the highest office in the land. (For more on the hometown pride theme, see Lee Cataluna’s “Kama`aina President” column in today’s Honolulu Advertiser.)

Rogers predicted Hawaii will be in the spotlight as the nation and world try to figure out what it is about this place that could produce someone so remarkable. And when they drop in for a look, maybe they’ll learn how Hawaii’s geographical isolation has made it overwhelmingly dependent on fossil fuel for nearly all its energy.

Utilities burned oil to generate 78 percent of the state’s electricity in 2006; coal produced another 13 percent. Renewable energy contributed only a little more than 6 percent, so it’s easy to appreciate, he said, why $147/barrel oil has truly damaged the state’s economy.

With Obama’s election, Rogers said the call for new energy sources no longer can be “Drill, Baby, Drill” but something with a “green” hue. “Change we must,” he said, and that change can and should be at its most aggressive in Hawaii, out of necessity.

(11/9 UPDATE: The Honolulu Star-Bulletin's editorial today -- "Obama's energy push a natural for Hawaii" -- sees great opportunity for Hawaii to be a laboratory for renewable energy development during the Obama Administration.  11/10 UPDATE: Al Gore has urged Obama to go 100 percent renewable energy in a decade; he made the call at the Web 2.0 Summit last week.)

Rogers said individuals and businesses also can contribute to reducing fossil fuel demand by grabbing the “low-hanging fruit.” While Hawaii leads the nation in home solar water-heating units, another 75 percent of the homes here have yet to install them.

Replacing incandescent light bulbs with efficient alternatives should be encouraged, and hybrid cars have become an affordable way for families to transition to a renewable economy. (Rogers rides a plug-in electric bicycle to his in-town appointments; his wife drives their only car, a Prius.)

Rogers praised HECO and the State Administration for their recent agreement to spur renewable energy development by creating a new business model for the state’s largest utility. He encouraged his audience to support legislative and regulatory changes that will be necessary to achieve the transformation. And he invited individuals to join with Blue Planet Foundation to help end fossil fuel dependence in the Islands:

“HECO and the State have made an historic leap in the right direction, and I thank them. Blue Planet Foundation will not rest until the last oil and gas tankers and the last coal transports have left the shores of this paradise. And when I say paradise, I’m not just talking about the great State of Hawaii and not just the United States of America. I mean Mother Earth – the one and only true Blue Planet.”

Alm: Renewables to the Max

HECO’s Alm contrasted Hawaii’s energy mix with the mainland’s and noted that the Big 4 of mainland energy sources – coal, nuclear, natural gas and large-scale hydro – simply won’t work in Hawaii. The four produce 96 percent of the mainland’s energy, while renewables contribute only 2 percent. Hawaii already gets 9 percent from renewables and has the potential to dramatically drive that percentage much higher.

“We’ll be trying to push wind and solar energy to their maximum contributions with long-term contracts,” he said, and he spoke encouragingly about the anticipated investment in ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) here by Lockheed Martin, which has been working on OTEC for decades. Alm said Lockheed’s multi-million-dollar investment in this baseload generation technology will help cut into the state’s oil imports. (Alm spoke earlier this year about HECO's intent to establish "set-asides" for ocean energy technology.)

But Alm noted that intermittent power sources such as wind farms require backup from the utility to ensure a consistent supply during lulls. “From an operating standpoint, running our power plants will get harder, not easier,” he said, a message he said he tells power plant operators. Introducing large numbers of electric cars to the islands could produce the surprising benefit of greater system reliability; in a nighttime generation crisis, Alm said, thousands of plugged-in cars could feed their stored energy back into HECO’s grid.

Alm said Hawaiian Electric has to suppress the fear of operating under a different business model, no longer exercising a monopoly over electricity generation. “We’ll get there, because the last few months have been so difficult working with our customers” as the price of oil reached unprecedented levels. “We don’t want to do that again,” he said, and suggested customers put one of their electric bills from last summer on their refrigerator to remind them what oil dependency looks like.

Alm said we’ll certainly see a return to those high oil prices again as the citizens of China and India strive to emulate the consumer society America has created. “We need to convince others not to follow our energy-consumption model,” he said. (China's Premier has some ideas about developed countries' "unsustainable way of life.")

In conclusion, Alm said Hawaii has a history of cutting back and retrenching during tough economic times as her population tries to survive. “What we don’t do is pick some issue and stick to it, even in a recession, with the intent to come flying out of the downturn,” he said. The quest for renewable energy can break that pattern, he suggested, and although there will be up-front costs to facilitate renewables and transmission systems, such as underwater cables to move wind energy from Lanai and Molokai to Oahu, the long-term benefits will be immense.

Both Alm and Rogers said politicians and regulators deserve support when they undertake initiatives to usher in Hawaii’s green revolution. The Henk and Robbie Show may be bringing that message to a venue near you in the weeks ahead.

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