Chapter 7:

Hawai‘i – Island Life Is Unique

Energy consumption within island populations such as Hawai‘i has unique limitations that don’t exist on larger, interconnected, continental land masses such as North America, Europe, or Asia.

The Big Island 

as seen from the International Space Station

For those of us who live on islands, we must consider our need for self-reliance. That means answering the question:

Can we independently generate our electricity?  

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Living on an island is unique and the differences are many compared with living on one of the large global continents. For those of us who live on an island, we know that:

  • Land masses are smaller

  • We tend to be isolated from the “outside world”

  • The resources we have access to are fewer, more expensive and take longer to receive when you can get them

  • Populations tend to be a fraction of what you find elsewhere on the planet

  • Our goods are largely imported by air or sea. This is especially true when it comes to energy

Energy is one of the most essential components in modern life. From the food that powers your own heartbeat to the fuels you use to power your homes, businesses, and transportation, energy is needed to keep things going.

In Hawai‘i we have been 100% dependent on imported energy feedstocks [1] until quite recently. It is still nearly three quarters imported for electricity and more than 95% for transportation. Even though the State of Hawai‘i has mandated we transition 100% of our electricity production to renewable sources by the year 2045, the best ways to accomplish that goal, efficiently and sustainably, are still being determined.

Hawai‘i’s energy mix has been similar to elsewhere in the world. We use electricity for infrastructure and petroleum for transportation. As it is elsewhere around the world, petroleum is shipped to Hawai‘i. However, there are a few differences that make electricity production in Hawai‘i more challenging.


First, Hawai‘i primarily uses petroleum to generate its electricity, while most of the rest of the world has phased that out and now uses coal and natural gas. In recent years, the price of petroleum has fluctuated significantly from year to year. To have a stable electricity cost, you must be able to anticipate petroleum price fluctuations. Miscalculating the market has costly results.

Courtesy: Energy Information Administration

https://www.eia.gov/state/?sid=HI#tabs-1

Another challenge in Hawai‘i, albeit one we share with the rest of the world, is that all fossil fuels are finite resources. That Hawai‘i uses petroleum for both electricity and transportation makes this even more problematic. As previously mentioned, the global supply of petroleum has hit its peak—the maximum amount that can be produced on a daily basis. We are not guaranteed its availability at affordable prices in the future.

State of Hawai‘i

Power Generation Sites

Islands, of course, are self-contained and tend to be relatively small in area, and that creates another challenge. Elsewhere, electricity can be consumed thousands of miles from where it is generated and serve millions of people. Electricity used on the east coast of the U.S. mainland or in the country’s “heartland” can be produced almost anywhere in the nation. A source of electricity may combine or switch between different locations many times a day. This “load sharing” allows for greater efficiency and flexibility when balancing supply and demand throughout the day and across broad areas.

Because the Hawaiian Islands are physically isolated from each other, they cannot load share. They cannot interconnect production facilities on neighbor islands. Each island must produce enough electricity to meet its smaller, local, consumer demand, whatever that is, day and night.

That also means each island’s generation facilities must be designed with a load capability that can deliver a clearly defined “peak” in demand, even though, in a year, that peak might only occur 5% of the time. The islands’ differences in geography, population size, fuel mix, and facility peak capacity are among the factors that contribute to Hawai‘i’s high cost of electricity.

We have alternatives that are unique among the Islands of Hawai‘i. We have abundant sun, water, wind, wave, tidal currents and geothermal energies. As we pursue the State mandated goal to produce 100% of our electricity from renewable resources by 2045, we need to examine our needs and contrast those with our resources, not just from a single point in time, but over the long term.

As we do this it will become apparent that many of the renewable resources have limited lifespans, require imported hardware, are intermittent in their production of electricity, require storage systems to balance the variations in the gap between demand and production and have varying costs over time.

It’s important that whatever we decide that we take the long view when considering our options going forward.

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Footnotes

[1]   A “feedstock” is the raw material used to produce an end product, in this case, electricity.

Petroleum and Coal are the principal energy feedstocks for electricity across the Hawaiian Islands in 2021.

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