Hawaii’s Clean Energy Transition Faces Steep Hurdles, Study Finds

Some industries, especially transportation, face unique challenges in weaning off fossil fuels.

Aggressive action must be taken by all sectors of the state’s economy if Hawaii wants to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045 as mandated by state law, according to a new study commissioned by Hawaiian Electric.

The utility says it contracted the study to illuminate the scale of decarbonization and the types of technologies and fuels needed to meet the state’s climate goals.

California-based Energy and Environmental Economics, or E3, produced the report titled “Hawaii Pathways to Net Zero: An Initial Assessment of Decarbonization Scenarios.”

Hawaii will have to do more than convert to renewable sources of electricity to achieve net-zero emissions. The transportation industry in particular faces steep hurdles. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022)

Net zero means balancing greenhouse gas emissions so the amount removed from the atmosphere equals the amount emitted. There is a growing consensus among scientists and world governments that the planet must reach net-zero emissions by 2050 to stave off the worst impacts of climate change.

Hawaii has ambitious targets for decarbonization, the process of lowering greenhouse gas emissions. In addition to the 2045 deadline, state law mandates that by 2030 Hawaii must cut its emissions to half of 2005 levels.

“With less than seven years to accomplish such an ambitious and important goal, time is of the essence,” the report says.

The authors don’t offer specific steps or analyze the costs and benefits of the energy transition. The report is more of a deep dive into what everyone in Hawaii — from industries to individuals — should do to achieve its climate goals.

The study found that transitioning to electricity made from solar, wind and other renewable sources won’t go far enough to achieve Hawaii’s decarbonization goals.

A combination of electrification, decarbonized fuels, shifts in land-use policies and other steps will be required. Even then, achieving goals may be tough because some economic sectors face unique challenges that may be slow to overcome, the report found.

Case in point: transportation, the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in Hawaii and the US as a whole.

Transportation sources — including aviation, ground, marine and military — generate 48% of emissions in Hawaii. That compares to roughly 30% for the rest of the US

Shipping containers at Young Brothers.
The transportation sector, including shipping, generates 48% of emissions in Hawaii. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021)

Reducing the sector’s carbon footprint will take time because vehicles, ships, equipment and airline fleets tend to have long lifespans. While the US has a national blueprint for decarbonizing transportation by 2050, the E3 report noted short-term options for rapid change are limited because needed technologies are still emerging.

Sustainable fuels, for example, are still costly and under development for commercial-scale use.

Hawaii also hasn’t adopted regulatory mandates for zero-emission vehicle purchases. In contrast, California and New York have passed state policies that require 100% zero-emissions sales for light-duty vehicles by 2035.

While Hawaii state law says achieving zero emissions for interisland and international travel should happen “as soon as practically possible,” there’s no mechanism to make that happen yet, the report points out.

And Hawaii could work with other states through its membership in the United States Climate Alliance to develop policies that support the development of electric technologies or sustainable fuels, the study says.

Some in the airline industry are pursuing both options.

Hawaiian Airlines is working toward using electric or hydrogen-powered planes for interisland flights and it’s committed to replacing 10% of conventional jet fuel with a fuel made from sustainable sources by 2030, said Alanna James, director of sustainability initiatives.

It’s part of the airline’s plan to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 through steps like modernizing its fleet, improving fuel efficiency and fuel conservation.

The airline is also working with refinery Par Hawaii to study the commercial viability of manufacturing sustainable jet fuel in Hawaii, James said.

Making that product in-state could prove important. The future supply of decarbonized fuels “is a significant risk to achieving carbon neutrality in Hawaii, with potential concerns regarding availability, cost and sustainability,” the report found.

Hawaiian Airlines parked at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport.
Hawaiian Airlines is pursuing electric and hydrogen-powered planes for interisland flights. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Increasing energy efficiency and reducing overall demand for energy are critical steps towards net zero, but the shift away from burning fossil fuels is going to drastically increase the need for electric generation, the study found.

Demand for power in Hawaii will likely at least double by 2045, according to the report.

That was one of the key questions Hawaiian Electric sought to answer with the research it commissioned, said Colton Ching, the company’s senior vice president of planning and technology.

“It was a big surprise,” Ching said.

Colton Ching (Courtesy: Hawaiian Electric)

Besides cutting emissions, Hawaii’s decarbonization will partly rely on removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Sequestering carbon dioxide through natural sinks, such as forests, oceans or soil, or through negative-emissions technologies is a part of what Hawaii needs to do, according to the study. That will require land-use measures to enhance or expand Hawaii’s natural carbon sinks.

But adopting such measures – think zoning changes – to enhance natural sinks could be thorny. The report warns of competition with agriculture, residential and commercial development, and renewable energy deployment.

Hawaiian Electric said the study builds on the company’s own climate change action plan released two years ago. That plan envisions the utility cutting its carbon emissions by 70% by 2030 compared to 2005 levels.

“It’s everyone’s kuleana (responsibility) to create a sustainable future for Hawaii,” Shelee Kimura, company president and chief executive, said in a letter announcing the study.

The State Energy Office is working on its own statewide economic study of what Hawaii needs to do to reach its 2030 and 2045 emissions targets. The study will make specific recommendations for state lawmakers to consider and it will contain cost analyses. It’s expected to be completed by the end of the year, said Mark Glick, state energy officer.

Hawaiian Electric is among a growing number of companies around the world pledging to cut their emissions to net zero.

Net Zero Trackers, a group of international experts who scrutinize promises by countries and firms to reach net zero, issued a report in June that said the number of public companies making net zero pledges has more than doubled in just over two years, to 929 from 417.

The group’s research has found that businesses sometimes use net-zero claims to burnish their public image or even greenwash, asserting dubious claims about being environmentally friendly.

Less than 5% of companies could actually meet United Nations criteria for cutting emissions to meet net-zero goals, Net Zero Tracker found. Also last month, two peer-reviewed journals, Nature and Science, published studies questioning the credibility of net-zero targets and the issue has recently been covered by mainstream media outlets.

Rep. Nicole Lowen, who chairs the House Committee on Energy and Environmental Protection, said in an interview that the term net zero is becoming almost a pass in climate circles.

Nicole Lowen
Nicole Lowen (Courtesy: BRAD-*-GODAPHOTOGRAPHY)

It’s used as an accounting tool where companies lower their emissions on paper by purchasing carbon offsets or carbon credits through conservation efforts, such as forest restoration. But results are often hard to verify and difficult to determine if they are maintained over time.

It’s like buying a license to poll in the present with no guarantees that offsetting will be effective over the longer term.

“To be clear, this is not what Hawaiian Electric is doing,” Lowen said.

The company is meeting state-established goals and setting its own emissions-reduction goals that are more ambitious than what is planned in the state policy. The utility’s goal is not to offset emissions but to actually reduce them at the source, she said.

Net zero is a meaningful metric for power companies because the vast majority of their carbon emissions come from smokestacks, Hawaiian Electric spokesman Jim Kelly said in an email.

“They’re easy to see and to count. And we’re already required to report that data,” Kelly said.

Tracking and verifying those emissions is easier and more straightforward than what other businesses have to do as far as calculating emissions from materials, manufacturing, transportation and other sources in addition to carbon credits, he said.

The latest data on the company’s emissions can be found in this 2022 report by Hawaiian Electric.

Check Also

TotalEnergies takes control of developer Total Eren in €1.5 billion deal

Total Eren, a subsidiary of Eren Groupe, has 3.5GW of renewable capacity in operation worldwide, …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *