Hawaii: World’s First Hydrogen Economy?

Can Hawaii become the world’s first renewable energy/hydrogen economy?

Hawaii's small size, isolation and abundant renewable energy resources give it an ideal opportunity to become the world's first hydrogen economy.

Hawaii’s small size, isolation and abundant renewable energy resources give it an ideal opportunity to become the world’s first hydrogen economy.

The ingredients are there. Hawaii’s got renewable energy. Hawaii’s got high energy import costs. Hawaii’s committed to 100% renewable energy by 2045.

But Hawaii’s biggest ‘asset’ is its ‘closed’ electricity and land transport system. This is unique in the developed world.

Hawaii’s a series of islands. Motor vehicles can’t driven into Hawaii from elsewhere. Nor can Hawaii ‘import’ electricity from elsewhere over power lines.

But this is now a competitive advantage. Hawaii can implement leading-edge transport and electricity innovations without worrying about backward compatibility.

Exploiting this energy innovation niche will add billions to Hawaii’s economy. Two developments hold the key.

The first is the pending sale of Hawaiian Electric Co. to Florida-based NextEra Energy. That deal could close next year.

The second is the Honolulu Area Rapid Transit (HART) project. So far, this poorly-planned, over-budget $6 billion mass transit project represents Hawaii’s failure to turn ‘exceptionalism’ into an economic asset.

Hawaii’s populous island of Oahu, where 80% of the state’s people live and Honolulu is located, has long copied US mainland-style housing development templates of low-density, single-family homes.

Oahu’s also built large freeways suited for a continental economy of infinite space than for a small island where every inch counts.

The result: out-of-reach housing prices and clogged traffic due to poor land utilization.

The wholly unsupported hope now is that by superimposing a mass transit system atop Oahu’s clogged roadways people will be encouraged to leave their cars at home. Characterized charitably, this is myopic.

The problem is that most potential riders of HART live miles from any of its 21 stations. This is due to suburban sprawl.

Now, consider the innovations made to date by Zipcar, Uber, Tesla, Toyota and Google.These have trail-blazed vehicle sharing (Zipcar), distributed taxi services(Uber) and electric(Tesla), hydrogen (Toyota) and driverless (Google) vehicles.

These innovations now need to be deeply integrated into HART’s 21 stations to get people to and from their homes.

Consider this: the average US motor vehicle is owned for just 5-7 years. Therefore, Hawaii can mandate a turnover of the state vehicle fleet to zero-emission electricity and hydrogen-powered cars by 2025.

Furthermore, driverless cars are ideally suited to Oahu’s small area, limited roads, slow driving speeds and lack of out of state vehicles. Hawaii, therefore, could become the first ‘real world’ showcase of a whole new transport era.

This would put Hawaii at the intellectual property leading edge of the $1 trillion global car industry. It would give Hawaii a seat at the table of the information technology industry. Those are two very nice places to be. The future value  of this to the state economy is incalculable

Next Era wants to ramp up utility scale renewable energy generation in Hawaii. This is desirable. Oahu’s dirtier energy generation capacity (largely based on imported oil) needs to be retired to meet future clean energy targets.

If NextEra invests in large-scale intermittent renewable energy generation, storage is needed to manage asynchronous peaks and troughs of supply and demand on Oahu’s isolated grid. This can be achieved using hydrogen as the ‘battery.’

Oahu has natural gas storage facilities at coastal Barbers Point. Oahu has a gas pipeline paralleling the HART route. Natural gas pipelines can carry hydrogen. With Barbers Point as the aggregation, storage and distribution center, hydrogen can load-balance intermittent renewable electricity generation on Oahu.

Barbers Point’s also ideal for receiving surplus hydrogen from renewable energy on Hawaii’s neighbor islands. This could be delivered to Barbers Point by traditional shipping container. This would be a much cheaper option than an inter-island subsea electricity grid.

Hydrogen not used in electricity generation could be distributed as transport fuel for shared hydrogen-powered vehicles fueled at HART stations. These could be booked in transit by HART’s passengers using HART’s onboard Wifi.

The US military already is driving hydrogen-powered cars around Fort Shafter and Pearl Harbor Naval Base on Oahu. Both will be served by HART stops (Pearl Highlands and Pearl Harbor, respectively).

Meanwhile, the Hawaii Hydrogen Initiative (HHI) envisages 21 hydrogen fueling stations on Oahu.

All up, the bits and pieces fit together so well it virtually looks like subliminal intelligent design at work.

Taken together, all the above will increase employment, investment and the state’s tax take. Result: a virtuous economic circle.

A renewably-powered, hydrogen-battery  state economy is the way to go if Hawaii’s serious about a 2045 zero emission  economy.

The alternative: chronic, long-term ‘HART disease’ characterized by a stagnant economy burdened with  sclerotic transport, high housing costs and brain drain.

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Stewart Taggart is principal of Grenatec (http://www.grenatec.com), a Sydney, Australia-based consultancy researching the viability of a Pan-Asian Energy Infrastructure of natural gas pipelines, high capacity power lines and fiber optic cables.

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