Analyst sees isles as energy exporter
Biofuels like ethanol could make Hawaii the "Saudi Arabia of the Pacific," he says
To futurist Rinaldo Brutoco, Hawaii residents need only to look at any gas station price sign to see how the islands are affected by record-high crude oil prices.
That is why he applauds political leaders for their moves this year on trying to end the state's reliance on imported oil.
"People are beginning to get the point: 'Gosh, this could actually be trouble if we don't deal with it,'" said Brutoco, co-author of the 1997 book "Profiles in Power: The Anti-Nuclear Movement and the Dawn of the Solar Age," which is used in universities to discuss emerging energy technologies.
"I'm not trying to be an alarmist," he adds, "but I do think people are being way too casual about it right now, generally speaking, and of course that includes Hawaii."
But how do you turn policies on paper into economic reality?
That is where Brutoco and co-author Jerry Brown, a professor of energy policy at Florida International University, come in.
Today, the pair were expected to hold a series of meetings in Hawaii with business and political leaders for what Brutoco says will be a briefing on the world's energy situation and its impact on the islands.
The experts' visit, sponsored by Enterprise Honolulu, comes after state officials convened this month the first of four public meetings to strategize about ways to implement the broad package of energy proposals. The next meeting is scheduled for September.
"We're coming to help the political and business forces in Hawaii achieve consensus and therefore be able to execute a path that's not just a political slogan, but an actual economic reality," says Brutoco, president of the World Business Academy, a think tank of international business leaders.
Hawaii's energy proposals, which received bipartisan support in the Legislature, aim to reduce the islands' dependence on imported fossil fuels through conservation and development of alternative and renewable resources, such as wind, wave, solar and geothermal energy.
At the top of Brutoco's list for weaning Hawaii from oil are biofuels, particularly ethanol, a renewable fuel derived from food sources such as corn, wheat, soybeans, sugar and their byproducts, which has come under increased scrutiny nationwide.
Recent studies have questioned the economic viability of ethanol, while a growing number of detractors have criticized the push for ethanol as shortsighted and simply a way for automakers and large agriculture corporations to secure huge government subsidies.
Hawaii became in April the 42nd state to enact ethanol blending mandates, requiring that 85 percent of all gasoline sold in Hawaii contain 10 percent ethanol.
Although no ethanol is being produced in Hawaii now, the first processing plants are expected to come online in the second quarter of next year. Industry supporters say Hawaii's unique island economy and hospitable climate for sugar -- widely scene as the most efficient source for ethanol -- make it the ideal testing ground for proving the feasibility of sugar-based ethanol.
Brutoco sees it going even further than that.
"I really see the chance for Hawaii to become the Saudi Arabia of the Pacific," he says, "to go from a place where you are extraordinarily disadvantaged by the cost of petroleum-based fuels, to a point where you are actually exporting fuel to other parts of the world.
"I think that's doable for Hawaii."
Others disagree, citing global demand for oil of about 85 million barrels a day.
David Fridley, a staff scientist in the Energy and Environmental Division at the University of California's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, notes that only Hawaii and small regions of the southern United States have the climate for growing sugar.
"How much land would it take to grow all the sugar cane to make enough ethanol to possibly replace more than a fraction of what our gasoline use is?" he says. "In the United States it's not even an option for us, because there's so little sugar cane that's grown in this country that it could only provide just a small, small fraction of the amount of ethanol that would be needed here."
Even if it does not replace oil completely in Hawaii, supporters say ethanol will play a large part in at least reducing some of the demand.
Brutoco agrees, adding that it is part of an overall strategy that needs to be undertaken in Hawaii.
"When you look at what makes energy abundant, it's usually natural resources," he says. "Hawaii has abundant natural resources but it hasn't marshaled those resources, and as a result it doesn't get the benefit of its abundant rain, of its abundant water flow or its abundant biofuel.
"I see sustainable agriculture and a fuel solution in tandem for a state where 90 percent of the energy comes by barge."