Hawaii is Paradise for Green-Tech Entrepreneurs

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Hawaii is place for green tech entrepreneursTake a ride in Ron Baird’s pickup truck along the volcanic shore of Hawaii’s Big Island and he’ll show you an inventor’s wonderland.

On one parcel of this government-created energy
laboratory, rows of mirrors shine white-hot in the sun, turning heat
into energy. On another, brown water tanks harbor strands of algae that
will be made into fuel. Nearby is a wind turbine whose blades spin
parallel to the ground.

“It’s an awesome amount of things going on here,”
said Baird, chief executive of National Energy Research Laboratory of
Hawaii Authority, which is helping to nurture 42 green private-sector
businesses on 877 acres of land in Kona.

Watch out, California.

Tiny Hawaii
is gunning for the title of the nation’s green energy capital. It’s
aiming to obtain 70 percent of its total energy needs from clean
sources within 20 years.

That ambitious target blows the solar panels off California’s
mandate to get a third of its electricity from renewables by 2020. But
Hawaiian officials have concluded their state has little choice.

This tropical paradise is an energy beggar that
depends almost solely on oil to fuel its vehicles and stoke its power
plants. That’s left the state, which doesn’t produce a drop of crude,
vulnerable to spills, price swings and geopolitics. Hawaii
residents already pay the highest pump prices and electricity rates in
the country. The state imports around 51 million barrels of oil costing
billions annually, according to government figures.

“We really are the canary in the coal mine,” said Jeff Kissel,
chief executive of the Gas Company of Hawaii. “What’s happening to us
with oil is going to happen to the rest of the country as … supplies
diminish.”

More worrisome still is global warming. The threat of rising seas and pounding storms linked to climate change has put Hawaii on a collision course with Mother Nature.

While Hawaii’s
efforts to green itself won’t make much of dent in the world’s total
carbon emissions, environmentalists hope the state can prove what’s
possible. The goal is to transform the nation’s most energy dependent
state into its cleanest and most sustainable.

“We’re adopting policies and technologies here that can serve as a model for the rest of the globe,” said Jeff Mikulina, executive director of the Blue Planet Foundation, a Hawaii clean energy advocacy group.

The state this year began requiring all new homes be built with solar water heaters. Hawaii is working with electric transport firm Better Place of Palo Alto, Calif.,
to build a network of recharging stations to jump-start mass use of
electric vehicles on the islands. Meanwhile, the state’s public
utilities commission is devising a compensation system to encourage
homeowners and businesses to go solar by paying them to generate green
electricity.

The policies stem from an agreement Hawaii signed with the Department of Energy
in 2008. The state pledged to obtain 70 percent of its total energy
needs by 2030 — 40 percent from renewable electricity generation and
the remaining 30 percent from energy efficiency. Known as the Hawaii
Clean Energy Initiative, that agreement has since been strengthened
with binding legislation that exceeds California’s mandate to get 33 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2020 (though Hawaii has an extra decade to get there).

About 6.5 percent of Hawaii’s electricity came from renewable sources other than hydroelectric power in 2007, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. That’s about half of what California — the nation’s solar champion and a major player in wind and geothermal — has achieved so far.

But experts said Hawaii’s
small size and unique geography could prove advantageous in the race
for energy independence. With just 1.3 million inhabitants, its energy
consumption is small. The islands are blessed with abundant solar,
wind, geothermal and wave resources. And Hawaiians are less likely to
object to the cost of renewables since they already pay high energy
prices.

“It’s easier for Hawaii to pull this off than anyone else,” said Alison Silverstein,
an independent consultant and one-time energy regulator. “They know how
bad things can get, and they are highly motivated … to take action.”

Some of Hawaii’s
projects might sound like the stuff of science fiction. The state is
looking into building a 30-mile undersea cable to link proposed wind
farms on Lanai and Molokai into the electric grids on Oahu and Maui. A local company is working to provide air conditioning in 40 downtown Honolulu buildings using chilly sea water pumped from three miles out in the ocean. And Hawaii’s own Gas Company is using municipal solid waste and animal fat to make synthetic natural gas to supply energy to its customers.

“If Saudi Arabia is rich in oil, you could use the analogy that Hawaii is rich in renewable resources,” said Will Rolston, energy coordinator for the County of Hawaii, which comprises the state’s Big Island.

The Big Island’s grid already obtains about
one-third of its power from renewables, Rolston said, including solar,
wind and geothermal. It’s also at the forefront of some of Hawaii’s biggest experiments, thanks in part to the National Energy Research Laboratory of Hawaii Authority (NELHA).

In addition to its role as a green business
incubator, the lab is a leading center for research on generating
electricity by exploiting temperature differences between deep and
shallow layers of sea water, a process known as “ocean thermal energy
conversion.”

NELHA is also a showplace for innovations including
seawater air conditioning. That technology uses cold, deep ocean water
to cool the fresh water that circulates in a building’s air
conditioning system, eliminating the need for power-sucking chillers.

Baird likes to say that his office, which, like
other NELHA buildings, uses the ocean air conditioning system, “is so
cold I could lease it to Costco to store lettuce.”

Hawaii’s other islands are getting on board. Military family housing being built on Oahu
will have meters in every home so that residents can tell how much
energy they’re using and compare it to their neighbor’s usage. Such
peer pressure that has been proven to encourage conservation.

The military is also experimenting with electric generating turbines off the coast of Oahu that harness energy from ocean waves.

Some Hawaii
residents are dubious about their state’s big ambitions. The undersea
cable proposal and a plan to build a commuter rail line have stirred
concerns about cost. A survey by the Blue Planet Foundation found that
residents rated energy independence behind other important issues
including jobs, health care and traffic congestion.

Some proactive homeowners, such as Karen Young and Fred Dodge, said they’ve been scorned for making the switch to clean energy. The couple spent $23,000 to put solar panels on their house in Wainane, an Oahu neighborhood. Some neighbors sniffed that only rich people could afford such a luxury.

The family’s utility bill dropped from $110 a month to about $23,
Young said. Then a tropical storm blew through and knocked out the
power in the neighborhood for a day. Other homes in the neighborhood
went dark, but the Young-Dodge household was still running.

Having a working refrigerator and lights was proof
enough that they’d done the right thing, Young said, even if none of
their neighbors followed suit.

“In the night, the electricity had gone off and everyone was having problems,” Young said. “But we were still lit.”

SOURCE: Los Angeles Times. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services (c) 2010.