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by Ku‘ulei Funn, Science & Environment editor


In January, Hawai‘i Governor Linda Lingle announced a strategic energy plan that supports development of alternative energy sources that would ultimately allow the islands to use their own resources to become energy independent. The plan will help the state to reduce, eventually, its dependence on crude oil, saving us all money in the long run. Lingle believes that one consequence of her plan, should it be successful, would be the establishment of Hawai‘i as a global leader in the development of renewable energy sources.

Hawai‘i has five sources of renewable energy that can be readily developed: wind, solar, tidal, geothermal, and biomass. It is sunny year round with nearly year-around trade winds. Located in the middle of the ocean with hundreds of miles of coastline, the islands can generate energy from waves, tides, and thermal conversion layers. It sits on top of a geothermal heat sink generated by our volcanic origins and active volcanoes. Its growing season is year around, and it already has a history of converting sugar cane and garbage biomass to electricity.

Today’s solar technology uses heat from the sun to generate electricity. Solar energy can be obtained directly or indirectly. Passive eolar energy uses the sun’s heat directly to heat buildings by convection and indirectly by heating water. Passive solar can also be used with photovoltaic technology in which light-sensitive panels convert energy from the sun to electricity. An entire building at Pearl Harbor has been roofed with photovoltaic cells that provide all its energy needs.

Active solar uses mirrors to concentrate solar energy to create large amounts of electricity. At present Hawai‘i has no active solar projects, but those that have been created in the southwestern United States and in France have been remarkably successful.

Wind energy is produced when a turbine transforms kinetic energy into electrical energy. One wind turbine can power up to 500 homes. The Kaheawa Wind Farm on the island of Maui consists of 20 wind turbines and provides 9 percent the island’s power. It is the largest wind power production in the state of Hawai‘i.

Ocean energy has the greatest potential in our state. With ocean-based technologies such as wave energy, tide energy, and thermal energy, there are great possibilities for our state. The Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion Plant on the Big Island uses the temperature differences in the ocean to generate electricity. Cold water can be used to air condition buildings, and farm cold water life such as shell fish and kelp.

Hawai‘i may be unique in its potential to develop geothermal energy. Other areas have volcanoes, but Hawai‘i’s reservoirs of cooling magma are close to highly developed areas that already have established infrastructure. The Puna Geothermal Venture located on the Big Island of Hawai‘i supplies about 25 percent of the islands electricity to over 162,000 residents.

With the threat of global warming rising, it is necessary that we look into ways to power our earth without damaging what is left. Governor Lingle was brave in her attempt to establish such ideas, and we would be foolish not to meet her challenge.

Renewable energy--A matter of survival

Although it may sound like a new idea, renewable energy is an idea that has been around for a long time. As early as 1.5 million years ago, human-like primates were using passive solar energy to heat rocks they could carry into caves to warm themseves overnight. By 400,000 B.C.E., homo erectus was using fire generated from biomass--dead wood and animal dung.

Concentrated solar energy was used as early as 212 B.C.E. when Greek mathematician Archimedes used large mirrors to fire Persian warships during a battle. This was one of the first recorded uses of any type of renewable energy; however, for most of human history, people have regularly used natural energy sources to fuel their activities of daily life.

From their first recorded uses in China, Afghanistan, and Persia, around 50 C.E., wind and watermills have been used across Asia and Europe to grind wheat and corn and crush minerals. They were still being used in Renaissance Spain, when Miguel de Cervantes described his hero, Don Quixote, attacking one.
In 1838 a French experimental physicist named Edmund Becquerel discovered that electricity could be generated using the light of the sun on an electrolytic cell. This was the beginning of today’s photovoltaic technology; it took so long to get to today’s level because the industrial revolution found fossil fuel—coal, oil, and natural gas—abundant, therefore cheap, and relatively easy to use.

Unfortunately, 200 years of reliance on fossil fuels has released so much carbon dioxide into the earth’s atmosphere that the earth’s climate is changing. Carbon dioxide traps the sun’s infrared radiation in the atmosphere, which causes it to retain heat, which in turns warms up the whole planet.
In 1896, Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius calculated that the surface of the earth was about 30º C warmer with an atmosphere than it would be without one. He concluded then that the global-warming effect would be beneficial to the planet because it would stimulate plant growth and foster a larger population.

Carbon dioxide levels have risen about 25 percent since Arrhenius made his prediction. Over the past 110 years this increase in CO2 has caused a 0.5º C increase in global temperature. Earth’s atmosphere and climate are complex interrelated systems, and most scientists today believe this warming trend has reached a tipping point where, if we continue burning fossil fuels at our present rate the system will shift. Tropical temperatures will move into north and south temperate zones, melting arctic tundra and icecaps, causing dramatic changes to ocean currents and climate patterns and catastrophic changes to the biosphere.

Although we cannot easily reverse the damage that has been done, we can move to prevent further global warming by using alternate energy sources.



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