Hawaii Tries To Get Off Oil In Favor Of Natural Gas

Fifteen percent of energy in Hawaii comes from renewable sources such as wind, solar and biomass. The rest comes mostly from pricey oil imports. The state now wants to switch from oil to natural gas as an interim fuel. But some worry the move could derail the state's green energy momentum.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's take a journey in the other direction - across the Pacific to Hawaii, where 15 percent of the energy comes from renewable sources. That's an impressive number. But the rest comes mostly from pricey oil imports. Several energy alternatives are being explored. A top contender is natural gas. But some worry that effort could derail the state's green energy momentum.

From Honolulu, Joe Rubin reports.

JOE RUBIN, BYLINE: Isolation, tropical beauty, its vibrant native culture, a lot of things makes Hawaii a very different kind of state. But few tourists are aware of another big difference, what's powering the lights in their hotel room.

(SOUNDBITE OF OIL FURNACE AT GENERATING STATION)

RON COX: This is where the oil actually goes into the furnace. So it comes...

(SOUNDBITE OF OIL FURNACE)

RUBIN: That's the sound of a giant 60-year-old, oil powered furnace at the Waiau generating station near Pearl Harbor.

COX: We monitor it pretty closely, in fact, you can see the fuel flow right here is about 23,000 pounds per hour.

RUBIN: Ron Cox is vice president of Hawaiian Electric. The utility has put the former submarine commander in charge of an ambitious plan. The company hopes to scrap oil imports and switch completely to natural gas by 2020.

COX: The goal - and it's an aspirational goal - is to make it to 100 percent renewable energy, but that day we think is years in the future. We see natural gas as a cheaper, cleaner alternative to the oil that we burn today.

RUBIN: On the mainland, energy comes from lots of diverse sources; Coal, nuclear, hydroelectric. But since the 1950's, Hawaii has been deeply dependent on oil. Prices have long been expensive here, but in recent years, they've gone through the roof.

GOVERNOR NEIL ABERCROMBIE: It's more than upsetting; it's an economic hammer that pounds down on the Hawaii anvil.

RUBIN: Hawaii's Governor Neil Abercrombie doesn't pull punches when it comes to explaining why he strongly backs the idea of getting off oil and instead importing cheaper liquefied natural gas. He says people in Hawaii just can't afford energy prices that are three times higher than on the mainland.

ABERCROMBIE: That is devouring the disposable income of the working middle class in this state. We are completely and totally at the mercy of the international, globalized oil cartels.

RUBIN: There are no natural gas deposits anywhere near Hawaii. Everything would have to be shipped in. But right next to the rumbling oil-powered Waiau power plant, a solar instillation is evidence of a homegrown energy boom.

Clean energy generation has nearly tripled in the last five years, putting the state ahead of schedule on its goal of increasing renewables to 40 percent by 2030. Advocates for natural gas plant call it a bridge to that more sustainable future.

JEFF MIKULINA: And that is what is so seductive about this is the bridge metaphor, people get and they can see and they grasp. It's not a bridge, if anything it's a gangplank.

RUBIN: That's Jeff Mikulina executive director of the Hawaii based Blue Planet Foundation. The environmental organization is pushing for the islands to demonstrate to rest of the world that a more rapid move away from carbon based energy is possible.

Blue Planet Points out that for Hawaii to shift completely to natural gas would require hundreds of millions dollars in new infrastructure.

But the big problem with the plan, says Mikulina, is that while natural gas does burn cleaner than oil, it's still a fossil fuel and a serious contributor to climate change.

MIKULINA: And it's crazy when you think about just the system to enable that, when you have all these resources here in Hawaii.

RUBIN: Like?

MIKULINA: Wind, solar, wave, you name it, geothermal, biomass.

ABERCROMBIE: It's sort of what I call the Harry Potter syndrome. If you just use the incantation often enough, the abracadabra.

RUBIN: Governor Abercrombie bristles at suggestions that natural gas isn't necessary for Hawaii. He calls such talk magical thinking.

ABERCROMBIE: The idea sun, wind, solar, biofuels, and say them often enough, fast enough that somehow they'll all magically make the oil dependency go away. That's, of course, not the way it works.

RUBIN: The utility Hawaiian Electric plans to petition the state with a plan to allow the mass importation of natural gas in the next two years. Pretty much everyone in Hawaii would like to see the islands end their dependency on oil. What's in dispute, is if the so called bridge is necessary, or if renewable energy could really be near ready for primetime in Hawaii.

For NPR News, I'm Joe Rubin in Honolulu.

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