Solar, Wind, and Papaya: 3 Ways Hawaii Is Building Its Renewable Power Future

As an island, Hawaii has historically imported virtually all of its energy—that's changing in a big way as renewable power catches on.

Reuben Gregg Brewer
Reuben Gregg Brewer
Sep 12, 2014 at 9:01AM
Energy, Materials, and Utilities

The renewable power wave that's sweeping the continental United States in the form of wind and solar is having a profound impact on the energy market. However, there's one state where the changes will be bigger than in any other: Hawaii. And, because of its remote location, the Aloha state is looking at some aggressive ways to break free from its energy history, including papayas.

Hawaii became a state in 1959 and has virtually nothing in common with any other U.S. state. And it's biggest difference -- being an archipelago in Oceania -- is both a strength and a weakness. The location of Hawaii is valuable from a strategic standpoint since it's so close to Asia, but isolated from the vast natural resources that make the United States so strong.

Energy is one of the most notable problems since, historically, Hawaii has had to import almost all of its fuel. That's meant using the most transportable options. Hawaiian Electric Industries (NYSE:HE), which owns utilities that provide power to 95% of the state without any competition, generates roughly 80% of its power from fossil fuels, predominantly oil and diesel. The prices of these fuels can be quite volatile, and they aren't the most efficient or environmentally-friendly options around.

Source: TUBS, via Wikimedia Commons

However, as power technology has advanced, Hawaiian Electric Industries has pushed to reduce its reliance on these oil-based fuels. For example, nearly 20% of its power came from renewable sources like solar and wind in 2013. That allowed the company to reduce its oil purchases from 10.7 million barrels of oil in 2008 to 9 million last year.

Unlike many other utilities, distributed solar power is a big part of this shift. In fact, SolarCity (NASDAQ:SCTY.DL) recently expanded in the state, opening an operations facility in Kona. It has plenty of experience in Hawaii, too, operating in the state since 2011 and having built a solar system at the Kona International Airport in a partnership with the state's transportation authority.

Although everyone isn't pleased with SolarCity's business model, owning rooftop solar and leasing the systems or selling power back to the homeowner, the end result is less oil being burned. That's good for Hawaii. And solar is growing fast, increasing over 170-fold since 2005.

Big changes ahead
However, with nearly 80% of its generation reliant on oil and diesel, Hawaii isn't kicking the fossil fuel habit anytime soon. That said, Hawaii's biggest electric provider has audacious plans: It wants to generate two-thirds of its power from renewable sources by 2030. Interestingly, however, the first big shift toward this goal isn't renewable power at all, it's switching from oil to cleaner, and currently cheaper, natural gas.

Source: Scott Bauer, USDA ARS, via Wikimedia Commons

But by 2030 things will look vastly different as Hawaiian Electric Industries gets ready for a giant makeover. In 2030 the company hopes to get nearly 19% of its renewable power from customers (rooftop solar, for example), 22% from biomass (burning trash and plant matter), 10% from utility scale solar, 8% from wind, and 2% from biodiesel. That last one is fascinating.

Right now biodiesel accounts for just 0.2% of the company's power. But Hawaii is investing millions in technology that will allow unmarketable papaya to be turned into fuel. And the process being worked on could produce biodiesel from mangos, sweet potatoes, sugar cane, and other sources like invasive trees -- the idea being to use locally available sources that would otherwise go to waste. And Hawaiian Electric Industries is behind the idea, since it would provide locally produced fuel while supporting the Hawaiian economy -- which means more electricity demand.

The real deal
While utilities around the contiguous 48 states eye renewable power with varying degrees of love and fear, Hawaiian Electric Industries is truly embracing alternative sources of power, including controversial ones like distributed power. Unlike other utilities with easy access to cheap fuel, renewables could actually allow Hawaii to be self sufficient power wise. That's a huge opportunity for Hawaii Electric and for investors looking for green alternatives. Although the company isn't there yet, a roughly 5% dividend yield while you watch this carbon-spewing company clean up its act is pretty enticing.