Monday, March 30, 2009

Electric Vehicles Get the Brush-Off by TOTN Guests

Today’s "Talk of the Nation" show on National Public Radio had a segment on fixing Detroit – as in, what do we do with GM and Chrysler? In the course of the discussion, host Neal Conan’s guests – Micheline Maynard, senior business correspondent for The New York Times, and Dan Neil, automotive critic for The Los Angeles Times – more or less dissed the idea of electric vehicles having much impact in the nation’s future car mix.

Here are excerpts from the program, starting with a quote from Maynard:

"So much emphasis is being put on the Volt, and the Volt is a niche vehicle. They’re going to sell 10,000 in the first year. It’s gonna cost $40,000. This isn’t something that’s going to be an everyday car for you and me. It’s going to be a third or fourth car for a lot of wealthy people."

Neil picked up the thread:

“You want to see losing money? Wait until the Volt comes out (Maynard chuckles), because the Volt is a money loser, and that’s the problem. There’s a fundamental tension between what people say they want. They want these companies to reinvent themselves and make these high-mileage, fuel-efficient next-generation technology and all of that, and all of that is a money loser. There is no commercial case for that. I’m not saying we shouldn’t build them. In fact, I’m saying we should build them as fast as we can because they would serve a larger national strategic interest – namely oil balance of trade, global warming. But to require these companies on top of everything else they face to revolutionize their product portfolio and expect them to bear the burden of those costs is unrealistic….”

So here we have two widely read car industry observers who pretty much laughed off the whole idea of electric vehicles, even though they serve a “larger national strategic interest.” You have to wonder whether they’ve absorbed, chameleon-like, the same mindset of the industry they watch.

They’re only two people, but their comments weren’t encouraging for the future of electric cars in Hawaii, a state with an overwhelming economic interest to get off oil. That’s what Hawaii residents want, and we expect car manufacturers – American or otherwise – to get us there.

Making the Hawaii Case

Beyond the “larger national strategic interest” electric vehicles can serve, Hawaii needs to get off oil because the state is more dependent on oil than any other; electrifying transportation is a big part of what has to happen here.  

According to Hawaiian Electric Company, 63 percent of the oil imported here is used in transportation. The biggest slice goes to air transportation – admittedly a tougher nut to crack than ground transportation – but on the ground is where companies Better Place and Phoenix Motorcars have something to prove.

Oahu is the perfect test laboratory for their electric vehicles; almost all car commutes here are less than 30 miles, and most are appreciably shorter than that. If Better Place and Phoenix actually roll out their projects here as they’ve asserted they will, Hawaii could be the showcase for the first wave of electric cars to hit the street.

And if that happens, maybe even the Times newspapers on both coasts would notice.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Keeping Tabs: Oil Stays Above $50/Barrel for Week

We’ve been showing the Crude Oil graph in the right column for months now thanks to the folks at They make it easy to stay informed on the biggest influence on Hawaii’s cost of living.

Oil passed $50 a week ago today for the first time in three months, and it hasn’t fallen below that level since. Residents here already are talking about the rising price of gas over the past two months, and we’ll soon see the influence of oil’s higher price in our electric bills.

Anecdotally, our own electric bill was above $180/month in late summer after oil reached $147/barrel in July. Our most recent bill was about $75, which shows oil’s great impact in a state that generates about 78 percent of its electricity by burning it.

President Obama mentions the importance of developing the country’s renewable energy potential in nearly every press conference and town meeting. Perhaps more than the rest of the nation, Hawaii residents support him in achieving that goal. No other state is as dependent on oil or has more to gain by loosening oil’s grip on our economy.

Energy Stimulus Funds Coming

The Obama Administration is sending more than $15 million to Hawaii for energy efficiency and conservation projects, according to an announcement today.  Keeping track of the various stimulus packages flowing from Washington can be confusing, though; headlines two weeks ago said Hawaii is receiving $30 million for energy programs. And can we even be sure the funds will end up where they've been designated?  (We've just been assured by a State official in a position to know that there's no possibility of the energy funds being diverted as apparently is happening with other monies.  "We're working with the feds, counties and the PUC to make well thought-out decisions on where this money should go," he said. So forget the earlier speculation.)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

UH’s ‘Sustainable Saunders’ Is Good Model for State

One of the overlooked components of the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative is the huge role conservation will play in achieving HCEI’s goals.  As we’ve noted here recently, the 2030 goal includes a big slice of energy conservation into what fossil fuel generation could grow to, a cut almost as large as what new renewable energy projects will provide.

Energy efficiency needs all the promotion it can get, such as yesterday’s Honolulu Advertiser feature on Sustainable Saunders, a student-led University of Hawaii initiative to make Saunders Hall a model of energy efficiency. The story contains numerous links to energy conservation websites and is highly recommended.

Sustainable Saunders is just the kind of young adult leadership that our new energy-oriented show on Hawaii Public Radio will want to feature (keep reading immediately below).

Friday, March 20, 2009

HPR to Launch Energy-Related Weekly Show in July

We don't often "break" news here, but this is one of those times: Hawaii Public Radio is developing a weekly “live” one-hour program that will focus on energy-related issues in the Aloha State. We’ll host the show.

Topics will range from renewable energy development, utility regulatory issues, energy policy initiatives, climate change implications for Hawaii, the next generation’s views on these subjects and many others.

The format will include in-studio guests on the show’s weekly topic, a listener call-in segment, current energy-related news and more. The show's launch date is Monday, July 6; it will be aired “live" from 5 to 6 p.m. each Monday on KIPO-FM, 89.3.

Hawaii Public Radio streams is programming “live” on the Internet, so the show’s potential audience is in the billions. For starters, we’ll be happy if you pass the word to a few of your friends.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Replacing Fossil Fuel Generation with Renewables Surest Way to Cut Toxic Releases to Environment

Here’s a fun fact from the Environmental Protection Agency’s just-released report called the Annual Toxic Release Inventory (TRI):

“Electric power generating facilities accounted for 67 percent of Hawaii’s TRI chemical releases, including 83 percent of the air releases.”

Of the “top facilities in Hawaii for chemicals releases,” which totaled 2,440,684 pounds of toxics, generation stations contributed 1,920,431 pounds, or 78.6 percent.  Those are 2007 totals.

Oil Passes $50 Mark for First Time Since January

The price of oil may have fallen below $50 per barrel by the time you read this, so we captured the graph at the $51.36 mark. (And maybe it'll be higher; one dollar's value vs. one euro has already fallen 7 cents today.)

We can’t fail to note the unmistakable upward trend in the price of oil beyond $50/barrel. It may be no more than just another unpredictable (for the average person) economic event, but in a state that relies on oil to deliver electricity, food, clothing and tourists, the upward price creep will soon affect everything we buy -- if it hasn't already.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative Efforts Expanded; HECO Clears Path for Lanai, Molokai Wind Farms

Governor Linda Lingle today announced additional support for the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative (you can watch her press conference). Two senior engineers/project leaders from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado will be stationed here to work on HCEI, which has a goal of supplying 70 percent of the state’s energy from renewable sources by 2030.

(That’s the “shorthand” version of the goal and the one favored by the media – and even by the Governor’s office on occasion; HCEI apparently gets to 70 percent by reducing demand and adding new clean energy – a mathematical plus-minus contortion that we accept on face value.)

Also today, Hawaiian Electric said it has cut a deal with two wind energy developers to supply 200 MW each from their projects on Lanai (Castle & Cooke) and Molokai (First Wind). Both companies had proposed 400-MW farms, but HECO says by scaling back those plans, both can proceed without winding up in a court fight over the total package.

Of course, both projects are fantasy without undersea cables to transit their power to Oahu’s population center, and all those details have yet to be addressed – including the cost of laying the cables and the means to pay for the investment. One way or the other, customers will pay this "green energy" premium -- the price for reducing Hawaii's carbon emissions and drastically reducing fossil fuel consumption.

Noting a Birthday -- Belatedly

The press release announcing the wind arrangements prominently mentions the intermittent nature of these projects, and that leads us back to this blog's beginnings on March 14, 2008. That’s when we first touted ocean thermal energy conversion as the baseload power game-changer for Hawaii.

We’re pleased of course that wind energy projects appear to be gathering momentum, but without development of steady baseload renewable energy sources or radically improved storage capabilities, intermittent wind power projects will only get us part-way to our goal of eliminating fossil fuel dependence in the islands.

Precious little has been said publicly in the past four months since the Governor’s high-profile announcement about the proposed Lockheed Martin pilot plant off Oahu’s west coast. So please, Lockheed, Governor Lingle, HECO, anybody: Give us some good news about OTEC!

(This greeting isn't belated: Happy Birthday, Grandson Jack!)

Monday, March 16, 2009

PGV Eyes Adding 8 More Geothermal Megawatts

The timing is coincidental but couldn’t be better. Puna Geothermal Ventures, which celebrated its 15th anniversary in December, is working to add 8 megawatts of generation capacity to its Big Island plant.

Today’s story in the Honolulu Advertiser arrived a few hours before today’s Business Game Plan seminar, which includes Henk Rogers’ presentation on the status of renewable energy progress in Hawaii and the challenges ahead to expand green energy here.

The story ends with this observation: The contract being negotiated by the Big Island utility and PGV’s owner “will be based on business costs, plus a reasonable profit and other factors.”

Gone will be the “avoided cost” formula, which has determined what renewable energy developers are paid based on the cost of fossil fuels the utility avoids burning to generate power on its own.  This new approach presumably is part of the new way of doing business announced with considerable fanfare in October.

Friday, March 13, 2009

New Predictions of Irreversible Climate Shifts Hold Dire Warning for Hawaii; a 1-Meter Sea Level Rise?

Have you ever had your ears rung after someone crept up behind you and crashed a pair of marching band cymbals together? We think the latest predictions of “irreversible climate shifts” should have that kind of attention-getting jolt. Scientists now meeting in Copenhagen say

"The worst-case IPCC scenario trajectories (or even worse) are being realized. There is a significant risk that many of the trends will accelerate, leading to an increasing risk of abrupt or irreversible climatic shifts."

Among the predictions: Sea levels could rise 39 inches by the end of the century – i.e., during the lives of our children's grandchildren. That would be nearly twice as high as the earlier predictions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Computer models have shown that a 23-inch rise would drastically alter life in Hawaii, so we can only imagine what a one-meter rise would do – inundate Waikiki, wash away Kamehameha Highway, submerge the airport’s reef runway, destroy innumerable seaside homes, etc.

Attend This Seminar!

The scientists’ report is good timing for Monday’s seminar in Waikiki that will include a call to action to eliminate the use of climate-changing fossil fuels in Hawaii by 2020. Henk Rogers, founder of the Blue Planet Foundation, will be among three outstanding speakers at this year’s Business Game Plan, sponsored by the Rotary Club of Honolulu Sunrise.

Island residents seemingly have every reason to heed the Copenhagen warnings; our homes and habitat would be changed forever if sea levels were to rise as much as predicted. As a member of BGP’s sponsoring organization, we hope those predictions will move a few more Oahu residents to attend Monday’s seminar.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Red Flags Are Flying over Ocean Energy Project; Does Every ‘Green’ Proposal Merit Implementation?

Honolulu Advertiser graphic shows location of proposed ocean energy project.
We’re written repeatedly here about the three D’s that describe Hawaii’s relationship with imported fossil fuel – a debilitating, dependency that at times seems desperate. But how desperate?

Is Hawaii’s desperation so great that the community will endorse building an 80-square-mile wind and wave energy project in the middle of the state’s most important humpback whale sanctuary?

Other proposed energy projects have stalled over presumably much less potential impact. A proposed wind farm in West Oahu’s Waianae Mountain range died because of community opposition to its presumed visual pollution.

Today’s Honolulu Advertiser describes the proposed Grays Harbor Ocean Energy project in the Penguin Bank region of open ocean southwest of Molokai. In a story of more than 9,000 words, these six about company president Burton Hamner stand out:

“He has yet to contact HECO.”

That seems almost unbelievable and, if true, questions this company’s depth of understanding about how Hawaii works, let alone its appreciation for Hawaii’s enthusiasm for protecting its whale visitors.

Two other D words are pertinent here – distance and disadvantage. With their home base on the mainland, too many entrepreneurs have come to town with a big idea that never had a chance simply because they didn’t understand the islands and how business here works.

A Host of Questions

But those two Ds are essentially about protocol. Other issues are more pertinent, including whether we’re prepared to take chances with the whale sanctuary and whether the amount of the as-yet unknown “green energy premium” we’d presumably have to pay is worth the price. Wind turbines the size envisioned by Grays Harbor aren’t in service anywhere, and wave energy technology also is largely unproven.

Here’s another one we’ve asked before: Will building intermittent energy projects like what Grays Harbor has proposed (wind isn’t a reliable energy source) actually impede progress in developing other renewable projects that could provide baseload generation around the clock?

Details presumably are being worked out for Hawaii’s first small-scale ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) plant – the first step in the potential development of much larger offshore plants that could provide an unlimited supply of baseload electricity generation 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Building many intermittent wind projects now could make regulators reluctant to approve future baseload projects.

And this side note: Backers of the pilot OTEC plant know how the game is played; they've met all the key people here so often they may well already have keys to the executive washroom.

Grays Harbor calls its Penguin Banks plan the Hawaii Ocean Energy Project. Until all the questions are answered, we prefer a different name – the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary Energy Project.

It provides essential perspective from the get-go.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Rotary Speaker Seeks Broader Public Support for Clean Energy Transition in Hawaii to ‘Get Off Oil’

We’re pulling out all stops today for some shameless promotion:

The Rotary Club of Honolulu Sunrise’s fundraising event on March 16th – “Business Game Plan ‘09” – will feature a leading renewable energy advocate, a multiple Academy Award winner and a leader who leads by serving.

They’re not the same person. Game Plan each year mixes three outstanding speakers, and this year’s lineup is perhaps the most dynamic in the event’s 14-year history.

The green energy advocate is Henk Rogers, creator of the Blue Planet Foundation of Honolulu, a frontline organization in the fight for renewable indigenous energy development in Hawaii. The Foundation’s goal: to end the use of fossil fuel on the planet, starting in Hawaii.

From Russia with Love

Rogers will update his Game Plan audience of several hundred on progress made so far toward that goal and what must happen next. Game Plan is also about passing on lessons learned from successful business careers, and Rogers’ presentation will include how he has made the Tetris video game the most popular electronic game in the world. (In 1988, he spotted Tetris at a Las Vegas trade show, flew to Moscow and won the distribution rights. More than 70 million units have been sold, as well as online gaming portal and cellular phone applications.)

Bring on the Oscars

The Academy Award winner is Dr. Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios, who heads the creative team that has produced blockbuster favorites including WALL-E, Ratatouille, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, and Toy Story. Catmull has received several Academy Awards, including the 2009 Gordon E. Sawyer Award, a Technical Achievement Award, Scientific and Engineering Awards and an Academy Award of Merit. He is one of the architects of the RenderMan rendering software, which has been used in 44 of the last 47 films nominated for an Academy Award in the Visual Effects Category.

Serving by Leading

Also appearing at Game Plan will be Dr. Kent Keith, author of Anyway: The Paradoxical Commandments, based on a booklet he first published in 1968 for Harvard student leaders. Anyway became a National bestseller that was translated into 17 languages. The Commandments were also a fixture in Mother Teresa’s orphanage in Calcutta, India. Keith currently is the CEO of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership in Indiana.

We’ll venture our subjective opinion that three more dynamic and inspirational speakers won’t be found on the same Hawaii stage in the foreseeable future. If you’re a renewable energy promoter or involved in green energy development in any way, come to BGP ’09 to support Henk and be inspired by all three.

An additional incentive: Your attendance will support Sunrise Rotary’s ongoing community and international service projects – including stamping out polio on the planet. It doesn’t get much more important than that.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Federal Help Needed To Speed Hawaii Renewables

Hawaii’s renewable energy industry is going to require major federal investment to realize its full potential.

Private investment has stepped up to develop wind farms and solar arrays primarily in Maui and Hawaii counties. But the ocean’s energy potential is still unrealized despite decades of commitment and research by private industry.

Federal funding for local initiatives is being touted perhaps more than ever in these early days of the Obama Administration, so now’s the time to focus on maximizing federal support. If ocean thermal energy conversion has as much promise as its backers suggest for Hawaii and later the nation, we can’t be satisfied with the slow pace of these private initiatives despite some indications of progress.

Among the states, Hawaii is the nation’s most dependent on fossil fuels – for electricity generation, to ship food and goods to the islands and to transport the millions of tourists who sustain the state’s economy.  (Jay Fidell assesses algae's potential, including as a replacement for jet fuel.)

Oil’s price has been fluctuating between $35 and $45 per barrel, but only eight months ago it was $100 higher. The rising price had already crippled Hawaii tourism, producing double-digit declines in tourist arrivals, and that trend has continued during the recession even as oil prices have fallen dramatically.

What Will You Do?

Hunter Lovins was a featured speaker at the Blue Planet Summit last April. The sustainable development promoter had this sobering challenge for the Hawaii residents in her audience:

"What are you, each one of you, going to do if oil is $300 a barrel? What is it going to do to your family, to your community, to your business, to the economy of these islands? I can guarantee you, you’re not going to have tourists coming here. So what are you going to do?"  

Hawaii must find the fast track to develop all feasible renewable technologies, and that includes the high-cost alternatives like OTEC and initiatives to develop renewable alternatives to jet fuel. We’ve come to believe that only a major federal commitment will put us on that track.

Our government leaders must dedicate themselves to making that happen. Governor Linda Lingle’s piece in today’s Honolulu Advertiser touches on these initiatives.