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Hawaii Hopes to Become Greenest State

by Alana Semuels

Kona, Hawaii - Take a ride in Ron Baird's pickup truck along the volcanic shore of Hawaii's Big Island and he'll show you an inventor's wonderland.

Darren Kimura, CEO of Sopogy, demonstrates how his company uses the Big Island's resources for its solar facility. Tiny Hawaii is gunning for the title of the nation's green energy capital. It's aiming to obtain 70 percent of its total energy needs from clean sources within 20 years. (Photo: Alana Semuels / MCT) On one parcel of this government-created energy laboratory, rows of mirrors shine white-hot in the sun, turning heat into energy. On another, brown water tanks harbor strands of algae that will be made into fuel. Nearby is a wind turbine whose blades spin parallel to the ground.

"It's an awesome amount of things going on here," said Baird, chief executive of National Energy Research Laboratory of Hawaii Authority, which is helping to nurture 42 green private-sector businesses on 877 acres in Kona.

Watch out, California.

Tiny Hawaii is gunning for the title of the nation's green energy capital. It's aiming to obtain 70 percent of its total energy needs from clean sources within 20 years.

That ambitious target blows the solar panels off California's mandate to get one-third of its electricity from renewables by 2020. But Hawaiian officials have concluded their state has little choice.

This tropical paradise is an energy beggar that depends almost solely on oil to fuel its vehicles and stoke its power plants. That's left the state, which doesn't produce a drop of crude, vulnerable to spills, price swings and geopolitics. Hawaii residents already pay the highest pump prices and electricity rates in the country. The state imports around 51 million barrels of oil costing billions annually, according to government figures.

"We really are the canary in the coal mine," said Jeff Kissel, chief executive of the Gas Co. of Hawaii. "What's happening to us with oil is going to happen to the rest of the country as ... supplies diminish."

Global warming threat

More worrisome is global warming. The threat of rising seas and pounding storms linked to climate change has put Hawaii on a collision course with Mother Nature.

While Hawaii's efforts to green itself won't make much of dent in the world's carbon emissions, environmentalists hope the state can prove what's possible. The goal is to transform the nation's most energy-dependent state into its cleanest and most sustainable.

"We're adopting policies and technologies here that can serve as a model for the rest of the globe," said Jeff Mikulina, executive director of the Blue Planet Foundation, a Hawaii clean energy advocacy group.

The state this year began requiring all homes be built with solar water heaters. Hawaii is working with Palo Alto electric transport firm Better Place to build a network of recharging stations to jump-start mass use of electric vehicles on the islands. Meanwhile, the state's public utilities commission is devising a compensation system to encourage homeowners and businesses to go solar by paying them to generate green electricity.

The policies stem from an agreement Hawaii signed with the Department of Energy in 2008. The state pledged to obtain 70 percent of its total energy needs by 2030 - 40 percent from renewable electricity generation and the remaining 30 percent from energy efficiency. Known as the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative, that agreement has since been strengthened with binding legislation that exceeds California's mandate to get 33 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2020 (though Hawaii has an extra decade to get there).

It lags California

About 6.5 percent of Hawaii's electricity came from renewable sources other than hydroelectric power in 2007, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. That's about half of what California - the nation's solar champion and a major player in wind and geothermal - has achieved so far.

But experts said Hawaii's small size and unique geography could prove advantageous in the race for energy independence. With just 1.3 million inhabitants, energy consumption is small. The islands are blessed with abundant solar, wind, geothermal and wave resources. And Hawaiians are less likely to object to the cost of renewables because they already pay high energy prices.

"It's easier for Hawaii to pull this off than anyone else," said Alison Silverstein, an independent consultant and one-time energy regulator. "They know how bad things can get, and they are highly motivated ... to take action."

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