While Hawaii’s utilities are expanding renewable electricity generation, more than half of all energy usage in the islands goes to power transportation; predominantly in the form of gasoline and jet fuel.
Although they are increasing in popularity with consumers, electric vehicles still account for a relatively small share of ground transpiration. Electrification is unlikely to replace conventional jet fuel for air travel anytime soon.
That has some officials looking at another carbon-free energy source: hydrogen.
Using hydrogen as a fuel source isn’t a new idea. Experiments with hydrogen technology go back as far as the 1830’s.
More recently, hydrogen fuel had a brief moment national attention after President George W. Bush attended a 2002 event showcasing hydrogen powered vehicles.
Bush even mentioned hydrogen in his next State of the Union, declaring an initiative to invest $1.2 billion in what he dubbed “clean hydrogen technology.”
Despite that backing, hydrogen never really took off. The fuel is expensive to produce and difficult to store, requiring either specialized, high pressure tanks or super cold temperatures around minus 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
Buy hydrogen may once again be having a moment, as addressing carbon-fueled climate change becomes increasingly urgent.
“We are not cutting greenhouse gas emissions fast enough,” says Roxana Bekemohamadi, a chemical engineer by training and director of the Western States Hydrogen Alliance.
The group, which formed in 2020, is advocating for the adoption of hydrogen fuel as part of the United States’ renewable energy portfolio.
Bekemohamadi argues that while battery-powered electric vehicles can substitute for gasoline cars, lithium-ion batteries currently struggle in heavy lift capacities like aviation, busing, and trucking.
She says hydrogen is the best candidate to replace fossil fuels in those roles, including marine shipping.
“Batteries are going to be the replacement for gasoline. Hydrogen is going to be the replacement for diesel, jet fuel, bunker fuel.”
Hawaii County has experienced this challenge first-hand.
Local officials were seeking to replace some of the county’s conventionally-powered buses with a renewable alternative, but that proved difficult. Electric powered models reportedly struggled to make practical time on the long, often steep climb between Kailua-Kona and Hilo, commonly known as Saddle Road.
The county instead procured three hydrogen fuel cell buses from the federal government to serve that route instead.
Hawaii County has some unique advantages that made hydrogen buses an option, something not currently feasible in most communities.
A big reason is cost, according to hydrogen supporter and State Senator Glenn Wakai.
“Right now hydrogen is about three times more expensive than gasoline for the equivalent output,” Wakai said in an interview.
Wakai has taken up the cause of hydrogen in the State Legislature in recent years and serves as Hawaii’s delegate to the Western States Hydrogen Alliance.
Even more important than cost is the actual availability of fuel to power hydrogen cells. While most communities have limited access to hydrogen at best, Hawaii County has a ready and reliable supply.
The state-backed Natural Energy Laboratory in Kona produces hydrogen fuel on a small scale. NELHA and Hawaii County are currently going through the regulatory approval process to allow regular operation of the hydrogen buses, which will refuel at NELHA.
While hydrogen has the potential to fill in many of the gaps between batteries and fossil fuels, there is a significant catch.
Producing hydrogen fuel still requires electricity to power the manufacturing process, meaning fuel cells are not truly carbon-neutral unless the input power is generated renewably.
Roxana Bekemohamadi says that is possible to do, but the process is not yet cost effective compared to conventional alternatives.
She argues that cost will eventually come down with investment in new production technology and more widespread adoption, goals WSHA has made a priority.
Glenn Wakai, who chairs State Senate committee covering energy, says Hawaii needs to take even more basic steps before tackling the production issues.
“We have to create laws that, in addition to gasoline and some of the other weights and measures we have in the state, allow hydrogen to be a fuel that can be charged for,” the Oahu Senator noted.