Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Historic Hawai'i energy agreement; no promises

The state of Hawai'i and the U.S. Department of Energy on Monday (Jan. 28, 2008) signed a historic agreement to move the Islands aggressively down the path toward energy efficiency and self-sufficiency.

(Photo: Karsner and Lingle sign agreement. Governor's office image.)

Clearly, something needs to be done. The Islands get more than nine-tenths of their electrical power from oil and coal—more than any other state in the union. And as fuel prices spike, we're paying a dear price for our fossil fixation.

What's needed, the agreement says, is “a fundamental and sustained transformation in the way in which renewable energy efficiency resources are planned and used in the State.”

The new agreement contains a lot of good ideas and directions, but no promises. More on that later.

The overarching goals are two: Increase energy efficiency, which reduces power demand; and increasing the role of renewable energy, which should replace fossil fuels as the prime source of the state's power.

Here's how the Department of Energy (DOE) introduces it in a press release (Warning: The federal government is involved, so there will be a lot of acronyms.):

“DOE Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Alexander Karsner and Hawaii Governor Linda Lingle signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) establishing the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative (HCEI), a long-term partnership designed to transform Hawaii’s energy system to one that utilizes renewable energy and energy efficient technologies for a significant portion of its energy needs.

“The partnership aims to put Hawaii on a path to supply 70% of its energy needs using clean energy by 2030, which could reduce 72% of Hawaii’s current crude oil consumption. This type of clean energy transformation will continue to help sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

What does the federal government get out of this deal? A laboratory. Hawai'i is small, and it has lots of wind, sun, a heck of a lot of former sugar cane and pineapple acreage where you could grow energy crops, and readily accessible ocean for wave and thermal energy systems and so on. If you can't do this here, where can you?

“Hawaii’s success will serve as an integrated model and demonstration test bed for the United States and other island communities globally, many of which are just beginning the transition to a clean energy economy,” Karsner said.

The energy department will provide its policy and technical expertise, and presumably will back that up with cash, although it is not promising to provide any money at all.

The agency says it will hire experts in clean energy technology and launch multiple projects with both government and private industry. Some of those projects are amorphous, like “designing cost-effective approaches for the exclusive use of renewable energy on smaller islands.”

Others are a little clearer. For instance, one of the problems with wind and solar energy is that they are only intermittently available, and it's hard to run a stable power grid with sources that surge and ebb. The goal here: “designing systems to improve stability for electric grids operating with variable generating sources.”

The agreement promises to employ cutting-edge technologies for energy efficiency and renewable energy in new military housing projects. It would expand the use of crops for making fuel and power.

And it would seek to alter the arcane language of government permitting and regulation to support clean energy.

The agreement between the feds and state is only six pages long, and it's available here: www.eere.energy.gov/pdfs/hawaii_mou.pdf.

It proposes demonstration projects in clean energy, as well as systems to convince people to accept the new technologies. It seeks to ensure that folks up and down the economic scale get benefits from it. It would have the technologies readily available for use in other locations. And it would seek to train local workers “with crosscutting skills to enable and support a clean energy economy.”

The frightening thing about the memo is that it makes a lot of sensible statements, but commits no one to anything, including the funding to make it work.

Some of the caveat language:

“It is not legally enforceable and shall not be construed to create any legal obligation on the part of either party.”

“This MOU and the attached Appendix can be terminated by either party at any time...”

“Nothing in this MOU authorizes or is intended to obligate the parties to expend, exchange, or reimburse funds, services, or supplies, or transfer or receive anything of value.”

After all, it's just an MOU, not a contract, not a funding document. It's kind of like a blind date: I'll go out with you, but I won't commit to paying the dinner tab, I won't commit to whether there'll be a second date, and not even whether I might dump you midway and go home with someone else.

The state says it will be seeking some federal money, and Karsner said that he anticipates there will be some federal funding for Hawai'i coming up. No promises, no amounts discussed.

That said, there does appear to be a general commitment to move forward.

Among the first steps will be the formation of “working groups” to study key areas, and these groups have amazing deadlines. They are to be established by the end of January, to have draft plans in place by the end of March and by the end of June 2008, they are to “issue final strategic implementation plans that include a set of initial actions needed to jump start activity in each of the energy performance areas, two-, five- and ten-year goals, and specific actions that will be taken to meet the transformational goals required in each of the major areas.”

The groups are to review:

End-use efficiency, electrical generation, energy delivery, transportation, technology integration, sustained financing sources, and policy and regulatory mechanisms.

© 2007 Jan W. TenBruggencate