Sunday, October 10, 2010

Just What Exactly Is Hawaii’s Top Energy Goal – Cutting Energy Consumption or Eliminating Fossil Fuels?

Two energy-related stories in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin today got me thinking.

“Energy reform a top goal” is the headline above the gubernatorial campaign story. The piece mentions the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative (HCEI) and its goals to increase renewable energy dependence and energy efficiency. The two major candidates have strikingly different approaches to energy issues, so voters with concerns in this area might well give it a read.

The other story by the Associated Press (linked from another website) relates Japan’s efforts to create “smart cities” that are energy-efficient. Billions are being spent to create smart grids with a goal, the story says, “…to drastically cut carbon emissions, which many scientists believe cause global warming – ideally to zero.”

That’s when I had my flashback to the 1980s and my years at Hawaiian Electric Co. One of the “truths” we rolled out on occasion said electricity sales and economic prosperity were linked in a nice relationship. Graphs depicting the nation’s economic prosperity and growth over the decades also showed upward trends in electricity sales.

Technological change and energy efficiency improvements may have moderated that relationship, but the underlying “truth” for HECO employees, at least, was that their company’s product was doing good for Hawaii.

GOO -- "Getting Off Oil"

Something else we talked a lot about in the ‘80s was renewable energy and the importance for the state to reduce its oil imports. Decades later, that’s still a hot topic here, and much of the energy conversation focuses on HCEI and its goals.

I’m beginning to wonder whether HCEI’s two major goals – replacing carbon fuel use with renewable energy, and improving energy efficiency – is one goal too many. Wouldn’t we better off focusing on just one goal that’s measurable, the reduction of imported oil and coal? That’s Hawaii’s Big Enchilada, after all.

There’s not enough space or time today to get into this deeply (the Giants-Braves playoff game will start soon), but one can imagine scenarios in which increased electricity use in the islands would be a good thing. The electrification of the car industry is one of them.

Imagine a future in which every vehicle runs on something other than gasoline. Bio-diesel fuel may power many of them, but it’s reasonable now to conclude electricity would power many more.

GOO and More Energy Use?

Electricity use presumably would increase significantly to meet the electric car and truck demand, and on its face, that wouldn’t seem to support HCEI’s conservation goals.

Our imagined future also includes the vast growth of Hawaii’s renewable energy industry, and the electricity for the green-vehicle fleet would come from wind, solar, refuse, ocean and perhaps other power sources. This scenario suggests economic development that both supports and resists HCEI’s goals.

Let’s also imagine that Hawaii truly does achieve the decades-old dream of being a center for intellectual property development, software development and other clean industries. Electricity consumption presumably would grow to power those industries, too, but according to HCEI, that would be a bad thing.

Simplifying the Goal

Getting Off Oil is the one goal that virtually everybody believes is pure and good for both the economy and the environment. Growing Hawaii’s renewable energy industry across the board would support it, but the other goal of reducing energy consumption is a lot murkier.

It relies on an imagined energy demand in 2030 that the islands would reach if we continue “business as usual” without conservation efforts, then applies a 30-percent reduction to that imagined demand. I’ll admit that I’ve always thought it’s a dicey concept – measuring the reduced demand for electricity decades from now.

What is readily measurable now and in the future are oil and coal imports. Increasing renewable energy’s contribution to the economy could significantly reduce fossil fuel imports if green energy remained a top priority at the local, state and national level.

Heaven knows we’ve written enough here about the potential of ocean thermal energy conversion to meet a huge percentage of the islands’ electricity requirements. The contribution of other green technologies similarly would reduce fossil fuel imports.

It would be a tremendous achievement if those imports were cut significantly by 2030 and eliminated altogether by 2050, even if energy consumption were to increase according to the electric industry’s old “truth.”

That’s how I see it on this Sunday morning, with the playoff game about to begin. More later. (BTW, this blog has no power over the advertising below and adjacent to our posts, so political ads shouldn't be inferred as our endorsement.)

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