Issue 7.4: August/September 2004

Lighting the Way

by Jeff Mikulina
illustration by Alex Preiss

Sun, surf, a gentle breeze. Most people picture a beautiful day at the beach when they hear those words. But not Kyle Datta. He sees power.

"Solar, wave, wind energy—Hawaii has all the right resources," says Datta, a stocky man with silvering hair and a wide mustache that highlights a relentless smile. "We could be the global epicenter of clean energy research."

Datta is one of a handful of clean energy emissaries that are pioneering how Hawaii will power its future. Their goal? To put Hawaii on the map as the clean power capital of the world and become a model for transitioning the world to clean, sustainable energy sources. Sound far-fetched? Then you haven’t met Datta. His confidence is contagious, and he knows energy. Though based in Kailua-Kona on the Big Island, he’s the managing director of the esteemed Colorado environmental thinktank, the Rocky Mountain Institute, and his recent book on electrical resources, Small Is Profitable, won the Economist’s 2002 Book of the Year award. The gregarious Datta has degrees from Yale and a fifteen-year history in the energy business, and when he speaks of the "hydrogen economy" and a "distributed energy revolution," it’s not clear if he’s talking about electricity or a new-age religion—or both. But one thing’s for sure: He’s a believer.

"The winds of change are blowing," says Datta. "Given a choice, people would prefer to buy their electrons green." He points out that Hawaii now gets 95 percent of its energy from imported fossil fuel. The demigod Maui may have captured the rising sun for energy, but today the Islands depend on crude—which, Datta notes, is expensive and not sustainable.

"People want hot showers, cold beer and comfortable temperatures," he says. "We think they deserve to have those things reliably and at the least cost—which renewable energy provides."

So where, exactly, are Datta’s green electrons going to come from?

Ocean swells made Hawaii’s surfing waters famous—but the steady pulse along the Islands’ shoreline can provide a lot more than a playground. The Navy has plans to tap the ocean’s energy to help power Oahu’s Kaneohe Marine Corps Base. They have hired Ocean Power Technologies, Inc. (OPT) to install a system of six electricity-generating buoys three-quarters of a mile offshore—the buoys will rise and fall with the waves and their motion will be translated into electrical energy via a generator on the sea floor. The system will produce one megawatt of electricity, or one-twelfth of the base’s power needs.

Australian-born OPT president George Taylor says the buoys look like "submerged upside-down cups." Highly sophisticated ones: Each buoy employs thirteen sensors to monitor a number of factors, including wave size and strength, and data is sent to an on-board computer that "tunes" each buoy’s movement to harness maximum wave power. With twenty-six patents on the system, Taylor refers to the devices as "smart buoys," or, in his Australian parlance, "smart boys."

Taylor was apparently a smart boy himself: He earned a Ph.D. in electrical engineering while surfing the waves off Perth. "I realized pretty early how powerful those waves are," says Taylor. "During the 1980s, I figured how to best harness that power." Taylor helped found OPT in 1994 after two key advances: the growth of inexpensive computing power and, ironically, improvements in the technology used to build offshore oilrigs. Using those improvements, "we were able to minimize the problems of building a system in the ocean" says Taylor. No small accomplishment: The unremitting and sometimes unpredictable seas have plagued wave energy projects since they were first used during the days of the Crusades, when water wheels spun along the coast of England. Other benefits to Taylor’s buoys: There is little risk of marine life being sucked into them, and only a small flag will mark where they sit in the water, so the visual impact is minimal.

When the system is completed, the Navy’s project will make Hawaii home to the world’s largest wave energy buoy system. Why is the Navy behind the project? Three reasons, says Taylor. The first is to comply with a federal order to increase government use of renewable energy. The second is to reduce the Navy’s risk by reducing its reliance on imported oil. The third is economic. "In three years, the cost of this electricity should be three to four cents per kilowatt hour," Taylor says. That’s about half the current cost in Hawaii.

But what happens when there’s a lull in the waves? Any surfer knows the bummer of a flat day. Will that bummer extend to lights and refrigerators? Yes, says Taylor. "There are some periods of the year—we estimate 10 percent of the time—where we won’t have the wave energy we need." But he’s quick to point out that those days won’t come as a surprise. Satellite imagery that predicts incoming swells will leave time to prepare backup power sources.

"The potential for wave power is huge," says Taylor. "And Hawaii is an ideal site to use/develop it."

While the attitude is perfect for catching waves, Hawaii’s latitude makes it a perfect location for catching rays. As any sunburned visitor knows, the Island sun is powerful. An average 1,000-square-foot roof in the Islands daily receives the energy equivalent of sixteen gallons of gasoline in the form of pure sunlight.

A portion of this energy can be captured with photovoltaic cells—devices that were once relegated to satellites, cheap calculators and Birkenstock-clad survivalists who sought to live off the grid. Today, thanks to dramatic decreases in cost, photovoltaic cells are starting to tile rooftops statewide. At the Big Island’s Mauna Lani Resort, dozens of photovoltaic panels provide over 500 kilowatts of power, making the Mauna Lani the largest solar-powered resort in the world. The solar system supplies 15 percent of the hotel’s electricity needs and half of the electricity of its golf operations. Even the golf carts zip around on mana (power) from the sun.

John Crouch, who heads up the Hawaii office of PowerLight Corporation, a Berkeley-based photovoltaic manufacturer, installed the panels at the Mauna Lani six years ago. The solidly built and ever-optimistic Crouch has watched the evolution of solar cells since he started in the field over twenty years ago. Now, with photovoltaic prices 70 percent less than they were in the early 1980s, Crouch’s optimism is paying off. Though photovoltaic electricity currently supplies less than 0.02 percent of Hawaii’s energy supply, its use is growing and it can be found in some unlikely places—like Wholesale Motors, Inc., where owner Joe Nicolai installed photovoltaic panels in his car and motorcycle dealerships on Maui and Oahu. At his showroom in Kahului, where Nicolai sells such fossil-fuel stalwarts as Harley-Davidsons, the sun powers about half of the shop’s electricity needs.

On the Kona coast, where the sun has dried coffee beans for over a century, the Mountain Thunder Coffee Plantation is putting the sun to work in a whole new way. With the help of Kyle Datta, they have installed enough photovoltaic panels to power half of their coffee mill’s operations. The seven-year-old mill—the only certified organic coffee mill in the United States—processes some two to three million pounds of coffee annually.

Trent Bateman, Mountain Thunder’s owner, sees organic coffee and clean energy as part of the plantation’s overall philosophy. "Solar energy and organic coffee go hand-in-hand," he says.

But does the coffee taste better?

"Organic coffee is much smoother," Bateman maintains. No doubt a discriminating palate can taste the added drops of sunshine in the cup.

The ridges that rise up behind Maalaea on Maui’s south shore are buffeted by the winds that funnel between Haleakala and the West Maui mountains. It’s a good location to fly a kite—or power a small city. Hawý Renewable Development, Inc. has plans to do just that: power nearly 8,000 houses with twenty-seven wind turbines at Kaheawa Pastures.

These are not your grandfather’s windmills. Each turbine is perched on a 200-foot-high tapered steel pole and has fiberglass blades with a diameter of 150 feet. When the wind pushes those blades around, they crank out 660 kilowatts of electricity—enough juice to illuminate 11,000 sixty-watt lightbulbs. The blades will spin around once every two seconds or at "about the speed of a 33 rpm record," says Warren Bollmeier, consultant for the Kaheawa project.

The reference to vinyl is telling. Like many of Hawaii’s renewable energy advocates, Bollmeier has been preaching the benefits of clean energy for decades and his passion for renewables is near ecclesiastical. Ask him about wind energy and you soon realize you are in for an education that combines physics, history and civics.

The tall, lean Bollmeier has a tendency to pepper his explanations with wonkish energy-policy jargon and acronyms, sometimes punctuating his sentence with a "right?" as if you were with him all along. "We’re in the PPA negotiation loop, right?" he says of the Kaheawa project. Right. (PPA, it turns out, stands for "power purchase agreement," the local utility’s commitment to purchase a set amount of electricity at a fixed price from the project.)

Bollmeier downplays the failure of Hawaii’s first real foray into wind energy—the now-defunct wind farm at Kahuku on Oahu’s north shore, which included what was at the time the largest wind turbine on earth, a 3,200-kilowatt behemoth with blades measuring 320 feet across. Today, one of the blades from the disassembled turbine is displayed at the electric utility’s Ward Avenue facility, a testament to lessons learned.

Bollmeier is confident that the days of merely tilting at windmills are past. Of the Kahuku project he says, "They were first-generation turbines that failed just as others did in California. The technology has improved dramatically, and we now know how to site wind farms with much better clarity. And they’re much cheaper."

Indeed. The cost of creating a wind farm has dropped to one-seventh of what it was in the 1970s, and Bollmeier says the cost of wind energy is now cost competitive with conventional energy on Maui—and the Kaheawa project promises to save 100,000 barrels of oil a year. But how will Maui residents take the appearance of a ridgeline forested with steel towers?

"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," says Bollmeier. "People can feel good about it." And apparently, they do. Community support for the project has eclipsed the scant opposition and the Kaheawa project seems poised to triple the amount of wind power available in the state today. More wind farms are being planned and two will likely power up on the Big Island in 2004.

Gay Chung, a risk-financing consultant who is part-Hawaiian, sees wind energy as a logical extension of the Polynesian past, when winds drove voyaging canoes to new lands and new discoveries.

"Hawaiians want to live in a sustainable fashion, as they used to," says Chung. "In a very pono (right) way, we want to look at renewable energy for sustainability, economic empowerment and self-sufficiency."

"It’s not a matter of economics anymore; it’s a matter of will," Datta says. "And I think the people of Hawaii have that will."

Crouch agrees. "The technology is here, the resource is here, the customers are here," he says. "Now it’s just putting it all together. Once we create a critical mass in the renewable industry in Hawaii, we’ll have a marketable product—our know-how—for the rest of world."