Energy alternative being explored in Hawaii

Published: Mar. 13, 2013 at 9:25 PM HST|Updated: Mar. 13, 2013 at 9:49 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - There is debate over a new energy experiment that could start on Oahu next month. According to Hawaii Gas, formerly The Gas Company, liquefied natural gas (LNG) will reduce the state's dependence on imported oil. Critics, however, aren't convinced that the switch makes sense.

Hawaii Gas wants to diversify the state's energy portfolio. The company has already invested $2 million in equipment for the initial part of the venture. The first container of LNG collected in Arizona could arrive in mid-April. Initially, LNG will be shipped from the mainland. LNG takes up 1/600th of the space of regular natural gas. Proponents said at current prices, LNG is cheaper than synthetic natural gas made on Oahu from petroleum byproducts, even in the start-up phase.

"About 15 to 20% percent lower, and that includes the transportation on U.S.-flagged vessels," said Jeff Kissel, president of Hawaii Gas.

A vaporizer will convert the liquid back to a gas. The company plans to use up to 20 containers to bring in the fuel for emergency backup in Phase 1. The expansion in Phase 2 calls for storage of up to 70,000 gallons. Phase 3 includes bulk shipments for utility gas, electricity generation, and ground and marine transportation after 2016.

Hawaii Gas began looking into LNG even when prices were higher five years ago due to concerns about Oahu's two refineries. According to Kissel, there is more of a need for an alternative now since Tesoro is closing its facility. The company said LNG should be part of a future that is still focused mainly on renewable energy.

"Gas is the next best thing. It's got 1/3 the carbon emissions of oil, substantially fewer carbon issues than coal," Kissel said.

Critics, however, question whether LNG is actually cost-effective. They're also concerned about environmental impacts from mainland drilling, such as groundwater contamination and climate change.

"One of the problems with LNG is that as you extract it out of the ground and you gassify it and you ship it, you go through all these steps, how much methane is leaking into the atmosphere?" said Richard Wallsgrove of Blue Planet Foundation.

Hawaii Gas has already cleared one hurdle since the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) decided in January that Phase 1 did not require its permission. Now the company is waiting for permits and approvals from several other agencies. Kissel said he encouraged public debate on the benefits and risks, and opponents have plenty of questions.

"Is there really a difference between one fossil fuel and another? If you were quitting smoking, for example, would you switch to cigars and see it as a victory?" questioned Wallsgrove.

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