Hawaii's Quest to Go Off-Grid
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because maybe a vacation spot could unplug in a whole other way.
By Sanjena Sathian
From the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam on Oahu, you can see palm trees, a wide open sky and a clear blue inlet of water. It’s warm, it’s pleasant — it’s friggin’ Hawaii. But set against the beachy vibe are an airfield, pockmarked buildings still bearing the scars of 1941 and … a small hydrogen fuel cell that makes, dehumidifies, compresses, stores and dispenses hydrogen to a few converted buses, Ford vans and Mack trucks, all used by the military.
The guy showing off the setup is retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Stan Osserman, the recently appointed hydrogen czar — and director of the Hawaii Center for Advanced Transportation Technologies (HCATT) — on the island. He’s an evangelist for the unloved and still-slightly-obscure renewable source, lobbying for H2 to play a serious role in edging out traditional energy, from gas in transit to the grid. “We really do have grid stability problems,” he says, declaring it’s time for a real “paradigm shift.” That seems to be the sense in the salty-smelling air here in the islands, where hydrogen is increasingly discussed as a viable source of alternative energy … maybe even, if Osserman types have their way, as a route to going off-grid entirely.
This is an urgent time for all things energy in Hawaii: In 2012, according to the U.S. Energy Information office, Hawaii was importing 93 percent of its energy; in 2013, it suffered from the highest electric prices in the country. Just last month, gas ran about $3.30 a gallon, well over the national average, according to state data. But it’s also an ambitious time: This summer, Governor David Ige signed a bill setting an expectation for the state to hit 100 percent renewable usage by 2045 — a first in the U.S.; now Vermont has followed. And don’t forget Hawaii’s own Elon Musk: Henk Rodgers, the guy who owns the popular video game Tetris and who just made a mega statement by taking his ritzy home and ranch completely off the grid.
When you’re busy trying to figure out how to make your vehicle not explode, you create some pretty thick-skinned stuff.
So people here are talking about the Earth and its environs in a way beyond just its ambrosial appeal. Which includes that uniquely Hawaiian convergence of energy and the military. The Hickam fuel cell sits right atop the spot where the original Pearl Harbor bombs were dropped (and across from a row of photovoltaic solar panels, kitty-corner to the scaffolding of a few wind turbines). And while that might seem a strange contrast to some, Osserman, a trained pilot, can rattle off a long list of exactly why the military should be driving hydrogen research and generation: It’s a quiet fuel, ideal for covert ops; it doesn’t leave much of a heat imprint and won’t explode; you can even hide your vehicle for a long while in a closed, compact space without fearing carbon monoxide poisoning. Much innovation on this island comes from the military, of course: When you’re busy trying to figure out how to make your vehicle not explode, you create some pretty thick-skinned stuff.
Already, a little over $8 million in funding has come from the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute (HNEI), a research unit at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, while the Department of Defense is developing stuff like the Pearl Harbor site and another project on the Big Island. Proponents say what’s needed is more money for research, more cars that prove hydrogen works and, particularly, infrastructure. That means more fuel cells around civilian parts of town like the one here on Hickam — after all, where are you going to fill up? In general, the one-off research and development on stuff like functioning vehicles and batteries will have to spread out to a macro-plan for connecting hydrogen to the whole mass-transit system, and therefore to the grid.
Energy from hydrogen, the most common element on the planet, is made by breaking down water — H2O into H2 (hydrogen) and oxygen — by electrolysis. Simple enough, right? In theory, sure, but there are wrinkles: There’s a “chicken-and-egg problem” when it comes to basic infrastructure, says Mitch Ewan, hydrogen program manager at the HNEI. All the hydrogen cars on Earth won’t do anything without a good fueling station, and without that attention to the larger electrical grid. Much of the innovation in hydrogen has begun in transit — cars, buses — which is also Hawaii’s biggest fossil-fuel gobble, explains Chris Yunker, energy systems and transport manager at the Hawaii State Energy Office; that’s coming from everyone from Toyota to the Department of Defense. Yunker figures the two are interrelated, transit and the grid, and that energy freedom for the latter will ripple from the former.
Then there’s the obvious: cost. En route to the base from HCATT’s workshop — which houses a few of those hydro-run vehicles with their engines popped dramatically out — Osserman worries about his cuts. Osserman’s HCATT got $24 million in federal money between 2006 and 2013, but has reaped nothing more federally since and is relying on the Air Force for backing. And even “on a grassroots level,” he says, some people remain afraid of hydrogen’s “bad reputation” — Hindenburg, H-bomb.
But the other fear in the air all over this isolated state, summarizes Yunker, is just how long it can remain so far from the rest of the world, importing everything from its mangoes to its fuels to its energy corporations. Everything, some worry, that could be Hawaii-homegrown.