by Richard T. Stuebi
I have the pleasure of writing this posting from one of the most beautiful places on the planet, Hawaii, where I am lucky enough to travel regularly to visit family.
In 1995, while lounging on the Big Island, I decided to shift my career away from conventional energy towards alternative energy. I saw what was then considered a big windfarm at South Point — 37 Mitsubishi 250 kw turbines. Many of the hulking machines were not turning, even though the wind was consistently strong, no doubt because of mechanical difficulties. Still, I was intrigued, and foresaw the need and possibilities for renewable energy — especially in places like Hawaii that rely upon imported oil for virtually all of its energy needs. I had just been reading The Prize, Daniel Yergin’s awesome history of the oil industry, and it wasn’t hard to conclude that we as a society needed to move off of oil for a variety of environmental, economic, and geopolitical reasons.
Every time I return to Hawaii, I take measure of how much renewable energy has been installed. Solar, wind and bioenergy technology and economics have improved considerably, and of course oil prices have skyrocketed. The local utility companies, owned by Hawaiian Electric Industries (NYSE: HE), have actively pursued collaborative integrated resource planning efforts to engage the public in shifting to a more diversified and cleaner energy supply.
And yet, 13 years after I first took note of the situation and opportunity, oil still dominates Hawaii energy supply, even though there’s been significant additions of renewable energy. Solar panels are nowhere near ubiquitous. A few new windfarms have been installed, but considerable potential remains untapped, stymied presumably by aesthetic issues. With its history of sugar production, biofuels should do well here — but they aren’t much of a factor so far. Even the geothermal resources associated with the volcanic activity is not fully exploited.
If renewable energy can’t make massive/rapid inroads in Hawaii, where can it do so? It seems to me that the Aloha State represents an excellent laboratory for CleanTech Revolutionaries to study the barriers to widescale advanced energy technology/infrastructure adoption — and more importantly, how to overcome them. At minimum, Hawaii represents a cautionary tale of how hard and slow it will be for CleanTech to change our world.