Hawaii Faces the Solar Future

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- A decade ago, I visited the Big Island of Hawaii for a conference on e-commerce and marveled at its alternative-energy potential.

Hawaii is blessed with regular trade winds. It has so much geothermal energy it can't tap it. There is a huge quantity of tidal energy just offshore. And then there is the sun.

Yet Hawaii, then as now, had the highest energy costs in the nation. It imports its fuel on tankers, from refineries thousands of miles away. Land prices and labor costs were already killing agriculture in 2001, and tourism jobs don't pay well. Barack Obama is not the only smart Hawaiian to have left.

A lot has changed. Most crucially, the cost of getting energy from solar panels in Hawaii is now much less than the cost of getting it from the grid. A homeowner can now pay back his solar investment in under nine years, according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

Source: Institute for Local Self-Reliance

The result? Local utilities are refusing to take new power, even cutting off panels in the name of "grid stability." The excuse is that solar energy is intermittent; it stops when the sun goes down. John Farrell of the ILSR, which funded the Hawaii study, calls it a problem.

I call it an opportunity.

There are things even homeowners can do with "excess" solar power, I told him. They can charge electric bikes, motorcycles and even cars. They can use it to make hydrogen, as HyperSolar does, which can power a fuel cell for back-up power. What's the "pollution" from a fuel cell? Water.

The ultimate solution is the "smart grid" -- using computers to adjust supply to demand. But venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, who backs dozens of green start-ups, says that won't work. Unless utilities are willing to invest in massive amounts of storage, like that offered by Khosla-backed LightSail Energy, we need a new type of power electronics, as GreenTech Media reported last year.

Power electronics transforms electricity from a single stream that can be cut off at any point into a series of packets that can be routed like Internet traffic, as GreenTech Media has also reported. Khosla's firm has put $7.7 million into Varentec, which is working on the problem.

The key to power electronics, in turn, may be graphene, carbon bonded in a honeycomb lattice that Wikipedia calls "electronic chicken wire." A Scientific-American blog reports that UCLA scientists recently found a way to make cheap graphene films that can become fabrics storing enormous amounts of electricity safely.

This is important because, over the next decade, 100 million of us are going to figuratively move to Hawaii. More and more of us will be living in places where the intermittent energy of solar cells can be had for less than the cost of grid energy. As companies like Semprius of Durham, N.C., start delivering cells that double the efficiency of current products, as Business Insider reports), that might happen even faster. Aloha.

At the time of publication, the author had no investments in any of the companies mentioned.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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