Sunday, September 23, 2001

Hawaii is surrounded by water, an element which some
want to tap for its energy potential.

Water, water

...around Hawaii that could supply
the islands with an endless source
of hydrogen power and lead
the nation into a future weaned
of its dependence on fossil fuel

By Cynthia Oi

GREG MATSUO figures he's built hundreds of fuel cells over the years. It takes the Kauai Community College instructor about 15 minutes to put together a one-watt cell and although it's so small that it fits in his pocket, Matsuo could be building something big for Hawaii's future.

At least that's what state Rep. Hermina Morita is hoping. Morita, who is chairwoman of the House Energy and Environmental Protection Committee, recognizes that fuel cells are key components for a Hawaii that runs on hydrogen power, which she and others believe is the energy wave of the new century.

Private industry, the state and University of Hawaii researchers are seriously exploring the use of hydrogen, the most abundant element on the planet, to produce energy. Further, Hawaii sits in the middle of the most abundant source of hydrogen, the water from the Pacific Ocean. Altogether, Hawaii holds a pivotal position in the development of hydrogen, an opportunity that would reduce the state's dependence on fossil fuels and bring dollars into the economy as well as lead the nation in a new direction. Technological advances, costs and misconceptions are big barriers in shifting from an oil-based to a hydrogen economy, but advocates say these obstacles can be overcome.

"I see Hawaii as a good
testing ground (for hydrogen energy).
It's still in its infancy stages,
but we can become part of the
industry development.
We have the right stuff."

Greg Matsuo
Kauai Community College instructor

IT IS ESSENTIAL that Hawaii and the United States be weaned from consumption of oil, particularly that from the volatile Middle East, to ensure the nation's economic stability. "Failure to develop alternatives to oil would heighten the growing reliance on oil imports, raising the risk of political and military conflict and economic disruption," according to an analysis by the Worldwatch Institute. Indeed, if the suspicions of U.S. authorities prove out, the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., can be traced to unwelcomed American presence in some oil-producing countries.

With a minuscule $200,000 in state funds, Morita hopes to rev up the hydrogen engine by forming a public-private partnership to lure investors to use Hawaii as a testing ground. "We want to put signals out there so the private sector can bite."

The state offers considerable advantages for such a project. Primary is the wealth of nonpolluting renewable resources -- solar, wind, geothermal and ocean energy -- all of which can be used to spark the hydrogen-producing process without harming the environment.

"These will be the clean feed stock for hydrogen," says Maurice Kaya, energy program administrator in the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.

Another significant attraction is the respected research already being conducted by the university's Hawaii Natural Energy Institute. For the past decade, the institute has been involved in hydrogen development, receiving more than $4 million from the U.S. Department of Energy to investigate renewable resources for hydrogen production and storage. This year, the institute received another $1.1 million from the Department of Defense for work on fuel cells.

"The university programs have been ranked near the top of all the research programs and certainly have been the highest rank consistently," says Richard Rocheleau, interim director of the institute.

"We have programs that have been responsive, we have capable researchers, we have the right personnel to conduct the research."

"Dr. Rocheleau's operation has attracted significant interest from public and private sectors," Kaya confirms. "It has a national reputation for its hydrogen research."

Hawaii's geographical confinement also works beneficially, Rep. Morita says. Test installments of needed infrastructure could be conducted with minimal investment. Molokai, for example, with its few service stations and road miles, could be converted for hydrogen-powered vehicles experiments, she suggests.

"We want to put all these together to interest the federal government and private sector companies to make the kind of investments needed," Kaya says.

THE HIGH COST of electricity in Hawaii is a keen incentive for finding cheaper power. The price on the mainland averages about 7 or 8 cents per kilowatt hour compared to 14 to 22 cents here.

Further, "The purchase of fossil fuels sends money out of our economy," Kaya points out.

"Once we start producing our own energy resources," Morita adds, "that money stays in the state. It doesn't go to Indonesia or Australia."

Hawaii isn't alone in staking a claim to hydrogen development. In 1999, Iceland, which spent $185 million or a quarter of its trade deficit on oil imports last year, announced that it intended to become the world's first hydrogen society. It has joined forces with Shell Hydrogen, DaimlerChrysler and Norsk Hydro in a plan to convert the island nation's transportation systems and vehicles to hydrogen and fuel cells, Worldwatch Institute reports. Iceland hopes to become the "Kuwait of the North" in producing and exporting hydrogen to Europe and other countries.

Meanwhile, automobile manufacturers, oil companies and Wall Street investors are putting their money into the pot. General Motors Corp. earlier this year unveiled a stationary, hydrogen-powered generator that could be used to provide energy for homes and businesses. Texaco executive Frank Ingriselli told a congressional committee in April that "market forces are shaping the future of our industry and propelling us inexorably toward hydrogen energy."

"When you have Goldman Sachs say that by end of the decade this will be a $95 billion industry, people should take notice," Morita says.

Hydrogen fuel cells are a proven technology. They have powered on-board energy needs of U.S. space craft for more than 30 years.

"Hydrogen fuel cells clearly work," says Robert J. Wilder, vice president of the National Fuel Cell Education Program. "The problem is that they are extremely expensive."

Rocheleau agrees. "The real issue is how fast will cost of these fuel cells come down and when will they really be commercially available on a large scale. That will then be a major driver for the use of hydrogen."

Mass production would be necessary to reduce costs, much like it was for personal computers, Morita says. "When consumers make demands, the market forces will respond."

Will they?

Wilder believes there are misconceptions about hydrogen. "People don't understand it. They think 'Oh, the Hindenburg.' Hydrogen is just an energy carrier, just like gasoline is the carrier of energy for a car."

THE MAUI RESIDENT totes around a small fuel cell that he uses for demonstrations. It uses solar power to initiate a chemical reaction that separates hydrogen and oxygen atoms in water to produce electricity.

"We're used to things like wood or oil having to be burned to make energy. With fuel cells, we're not looking for heat to turn a turbine for electricity. We're getting electricity directly from an electro-chemical reaction. There is no combustion. It is far more efficient -- that's the beauty of hydrogen, especially since the only byproducts are water and oxygen."

Mindset is also a hindrance to developing hydrogen in conjunction with renewable resources, Morita says. Many policymakers and politicians see it as merely an environmental matter, "but it's economic on every level."

First it goes round and round


This regenerative fuel cell was built in a matter of minutes by Kauai Community College instructor Greg Matsuo. A photovoltaic panel, at left, produces an electrical current, which in turn produces an electrochemical reaction, or electrolysis, in the triangular-shaped fuel cell, splitting oxygen and hydrogen in water. The hydrogen, which becomes the energy carrier, then recombines with the oxygen to produce the electricity to power the tiny motor, right, that spins the propeller.

High energy costs stand in the way of attracting business and industry to Hawaii, "but we've never addressed that problem," she says. Moreover, "When you're talking about hydrogen and renewable energy combined, it not only decentralizes energy power, but decentralizes political power, too."

Morita doesn't see conventional power producers converting to hydrogen power. "That would disrupt how they do business. They know how to make electricity one way and they're really good at it."

Hawaiian Electric sees "a lot of good things" in hydrogen power, says Art Seki, HECO energy specialist. "We would want to be part of it, but it's very, very expensive and right now we don't see a whole lot in doing a transition." Seki says HECO keeps up with new energy technology and products, but that hydrogen power seems a way off and the company has little money to invest in development.

MORITA HAS DREAMS of Hawaii becoming the "Kuwait of the Pacific," not only producing its own energy needs through hydrogen, but making enough to export to the region. Rocheleau doesn't see that as impossible, but "in my mind it is somewhat of a long-term development. That doesn't mean we shouldn't begin working on it. Eventually, we're going to run out of fossil fuel."

Kaya sees it as "an interesting possibility, visionary. All of this contingent on a number of factors: The development of technology and it becoming more cost competitive. But we have good factors working for us. I'm enthusiastic about the potential of Hawaii being a major player in this."

So is KCC instructor Matsuo, who left a well-paying research job testing fuel cells in Los Angeles to return to his native island. He is helping the college put together a renewable energy curriculum to educate Hawaii students so that there is a pool of knowledgeable employees for hydrogen enterprises.

"I see Hawaii as a good testing ground. It's still in its infancy stages, but we can become part of the industry development. We have the right stuff."

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