Hawaii is a state like no other. Made up of eight major islands, the population is small, at just around 185,000 people. For comparison, Connecticut, which is barely larger than the Big Island, has 3.5 million people. Though Hawaii is one of several U.S. states that has promised to switch to 100 percent renewable energy over the next few decades (their deadline is 2045), the state has been struggling to meet this goals, and remains the most petroleum-dependent state in the U.S..
Hydrogen is a fuel source like no other. The most common element in the known universe, it produces zero greenhouse gas emissions. Hydrogen fuel cells can produce reliable, long-term, renewable energy, and for a long time hydrogen was imagined by many to be the fuel of the future. Many predicted that hydrogen-fueled cars, in particular, would break humanity's dependence on oil. Due to the large size of fuel cells and the high cost of producing hydrogen, the idea of a hydrogen-powered future was largely abandoned.
But now, thanks to new technology and innovative forethought, Hawaii's Big Island and the fuel source that was almost the "next big thing" are coming together to form a renewable energy future as unique as they are.
Hawaii's energy problem.
Being an island comes with its fair share of challenges, when it comes to providing energy. Things like coal trains and natural gas pipelines, a given in other U.S. states, have never been feasible for Hawaii. Even as other U.S. states switched to different types of energy (mostly coal), Hawaii was forced to continue to get the majority of its energy from oil. In fact, 80 percent of Hawaii's energy comes from petroleum. Hawaii remains the only U.S. state that gets most of its electricity from oil.
Known for being an eco-conscious state, Hawaii has been trying for years to find ways to harness its natural resources, including wind, solar, and hydrogen power. Until recently, this was no easy task. But advancements in technology over the past decade (including better solar panels, smaller, lighter Hydrogen fuel cells, and more efficient battery technology) may be poised to give the Big Island the break its been needing. Under the terms of the Hawaii Clean Energy Agreement, Hawaii must find a way to harness such energy within the next three decades. According to some, hydrogen may be the easiest and best way to do so.
What is hydrogen fuel?
Hydrogen fuel is produced by cells which combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity. Just like batteries, they take the energy produced by a chemical reaction and turn it into usable electric power. According to Stan Osserman, Hawaii's State Hydrogen Implementation Coordinator, hydrogen is a much more affordable and promising fuel source than it appeared to be a decade ago.
"Hydrogen is very lightweight energy, and it can be stored in large capacities for days, months or years and it is still there," Stan pointed out, "The last push on hydrogen technology was 10 or 12 years ago and a lot of patents [taken out then] are now up, so other companies can pick up on those technologies and make them more affordable in applications. Those efforts are really paying off in the last five or 10 years. Hydrogen is becoming a viable storage vehicle for grid and for transportation."
A match made in clean-energy heaven.
Already, the Hawaii Department of Transportation has introduced hydrogen buses at its airports. Grid storage for hydrogen power is being discussed. Blue Planet Research, a small Hawaiian company, is testing a pilot hydrogen energy storage system supported by a 100 percent renewable microgrid at Puu Waa Ranch on Hawaii's Big Island. The results of their research will likely sway Hawaiian citizens and lawmakers opinions on the subject of a hydrogen-powered Hawaiian future, one way or another.
Hawaii's island geography, which has kept the state reliant on petroleum for so long, may soon work to its advantage, when it comes to power. In most states, it would not be viable to release a hydrogen-powered car, for example, due to a lack of infrastructure support. California is currently the only U.S. state in which a hydrogen-powered vehicle (the Hyundai Tuscon) has been released. This is because it is the only state with a network of hydrogen fueling stations. In the lower 48 states, being able to drive from one state to the another is an important thing, to consumers.
In Hawaii, it is a non-issue. With this in mind, it's easy to see why Stan Osserman and others like him are so certain that hydrogen power is right for Hawaii, and why he recently asserted that Hawaii is "naturally positioned to exploit hydrogen as an energy source."