By Sophie Cocke
In his State of the State speech last week, Gov. Neil Abercrombiethrew natural gas into the mix of energy sources that the state is exploring — lumping the fossil fuel source in with technologies such as wind, solar and geothermal.
The comment alarmed clean energy advocates. And it's left some wondering whether liquefied natural gas tankers will begin docking in Hawaii harbors in the coming years.
Here’s what the governor said:
Currently there are about 80 renewable energy projects that are demonstrating progress in becoming commercial enterprises that have the potential to help the State of Hawaii achieve its collective energy goals. This Administration will continue to look at every option – wind, solar, natural gas, photovoltaic, geothermal, biofuels, ocean energy and other technologies.
The statement attracted a swift rebuke from Blue Planet Foundation, a local nonprofit that has taken a lead in the state’s push to switch to renewable energy sources.
The organization issued a press release immediately after the speech saying that it was concerned that the governor “included natural gas — not currently part of Hawaii’s electricity landscape — as an alternative for electricity production among local, clean, renewable sources of energy.”
Indeed, natural gas has not been a part of the clean energy dialogue during the past few years and it’s not part of the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative — the state’s landmark 2008 policy document for weaning the state off of fossil fuels.
Jeff Mikulina, director of Blue Planet, told Civil Beat that he was concerned about the prospect of deepening the state’s relationship with any imported fossil fuel.
“We need to drill up, not down, to our clean energy future,” said Mikulina. “We have so many resources here. We just run the risk of repeating the same mistakes we made over the past century in investing in off-shore fossil fuels.”
Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz, who the governor also announced will be taking a lead in state energy policy, said that it was too early to tell what role natural gas may play in the future. But with recent news that one of the state’s oil refiners was selling its Hawaii operations, the administration is taking a hard look at it.
Tesoro announced earlier this month that it would be selling its Hawaii refinery and gas stations. State officials are worried that the loss of Tesoro could mean even higher energy prices for Hawaii residents if a buyer isn’t found. And some say it could increase Hawaii’s dependence on foreign oil. Without the refinery, the state may have to import an already refined product. For the electric utilities, which use low-sulfur fuel oil in their refineries, supply options could narrow.
Schatz said that reliance on fossil fuels, such as natural gas, is not part of the administration’s long-term plans for clean energy, but could play an important role in increasing the state’s short-term energy security.
“We want to move off of fossil fuels as quickly as we possibly can,” he said. “But make no mistake about it, we are not going to allow our economy to implode as a result of a loss of a refinery. Natural gas is a fossil fuel — I don’t think there is any dispute about that. The question is how do we move toward clean energy and in the meantime ensure our economy has enough (other sources) to operate.”
Schatz said that the administration had been in conversations with the U.S. Pacific Command, The Gas Co. — Hawaii’s sole natural gas company — and exporters.
As to whether the state energy office was carving out a role for natural gas as part of its energy blueprint, state energy administrator Mark Glick said that there were no immediate plans to do so, but that "it certainly needs to be on everyone's mind."
He said that the energy office had seriously looked at natural gas in the past, and that the situation with Tesoro, as well as rising oil prices, had added a sense or urgency to the option.
"If it's a source that is cheaper, cleaner and more reliable, we should take a serious look," he said.
He pointed out that natural gas supplies could come from a more secure U.S. market, as opposed to oil, which Hawaii obtains from several regions, including Russia, the Middle East and Asia.
Jeffrey Kissel, the Honolulu-based CEO of The Gas Co., which is headquartered in New York, said that he couldn't talk about any potential plans at this time.
There are no commercial natural gas reserves in Hawaii. The Gas Co. uses a petroleum byproduct created in the local oil refineries. The company is also pioneering efforts to produce renewable natural gas locally. But producing enough in the short-term to significantly offset oil could be years away.
If Hawaii was to increase its use of natural gas in a way that was independent of oil, it would have to import liquefied natural gas, or LNG, according to energy experts. It would then be used in the generators of the electric companies, which aren't equipped to handle it.
William Bollmeier, president of the Hawaii Renewable Energy Alliance, said that the idea of importing LNG was a topic of discussion among the local energy sector a few years ago.
“I think the conclusion the group came to several years ago, was, ‘OK, this might work, and it comes at some cost, but isn’t it like trading one addiction for another?’” Bollmeier said.
He said it would require a special harbor arrangement for ships carrying the larger tankers of natural gas and off-loading docks that had the space and equipment to handle it.
“The only way that it would be cost effective to handle it at that point would be to totally convert all the utility generators to run on natural gas,” said Bollmeier.
UPDATED Hawaiian Electric Co., which supplies electricity to Oahu, the Big Island and Maui County, said that a decision to switch from oil to natural gas was up to state policy makers.
"The question is whether, as we transition to renewables, cleaner or cheaper fuels such as natural gas should be used for remaining energy needs now fueled by oil," wrote HECO spokesman Peter Rosegg in an email. "The costs to build infrastructure and modify equipment would need to be weighed against potential cost advantages for customers."
Mikulina said that there are arguments for why natural gas could be better for Hawaii than oil. It pairs better with renewable energy sources and it's preferable to coal.
"That's what is attractive, but we don't think that that warrants us investing in its infrastructure," he said.