Change in electricity production a complex, costly endeavor
Hawaiian Electric Co. has agreed to use plant-based fuel to run its proposed new facility.
HAWAIIAN Electric Co.'s agreement with the state to produce electricity without fossil fuels
puts a greener tint on its controversial plant proposal and could dampen objections as it continues its conventional tack for power generation.
The company's effort to trim dependence on oil and coal deserves a nod, but its commitment to use plant-based fuels hinges on whether those fuels will be available in good supply by the time HECO intends to fire up the complex.
Meanwhile, rate increases HECO and its Maui affiliate are seeking add another concern for residents and businesses, amplified by the widespread power outages after the October earthquakes.
Hawaii has huge potential for power generation through its natural resources -- solar, wind and wave -- and through growing plants to convert to fuels. The price of oil, both in dollars and in geopolitical costs, has heightened demands that the company move faster toward renewable energy.
However, shifts in power generation and distributions are complex technically, physically and in mindset. In addition, the utility companies say, they are obliged to investors as well as ratepayers.
HECO's plan to build an oil-fired plant at Campbell Industrial Park has been criticized as out of step with the state's and the public's desire to push renewable fuels to the forefront and to lessen environmental degradation.
In an agreement with the state's consumer advocate, the company said it will use only ethanol and biodiesel to run the new plant. But ethanol production in Hawaii has lagged with just one processor on Kauai close to output.
HECO plans to contract with a producer next year in hopes of having fuel available by July 2009, when it wants to start up the new plant. Still, as HECO official Robbie Alm asked, will the fuel be "ready for us in 2009?"
The company's commitment should serve to blunt some criticism of its proposal, but as an environmental group pointed out, ethanol is not a panacea. Problems like water allocations needed to grow feed stock, agricultural chemicals, use of fossil fuels to make ethanol and the efficiency of the fuel could shrink ethanol's advantages.
Moreover, there are questions about the practicality of continued public investment in systems that may not advance the state's energy goals and that distribute electricity in less reliable modes.
HECO and its affiliates are attempting to change electricity production but those changes are complicated by a struggle to keep up with accelerated growth and the costs of shifting to cleaner technology while maintaining power and cash flow.