Hawaii has committed to weaning itself off fossil fuel by mandating 70 percent clean energy by 2030 -- 40 percent from renewable sources such as wind, solar and geothermal and 30 percent from energy efficiency. Thirty states have adopted renewable portfolio standards, but the struggle is how to turn those goals into action.
U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, and former Gov. Linda Lingle, the Republican, have embraced renewable energy to help break Hawaii's $4.5 billion-a-year dependence on imported oil. But they disagree on the route.
Hirono has called for a national renewable energy and efficiency standard to generate 25 percent of the country's energy from renewable sources by 2025. She would also extend solar tax credits for homeowners and businesses and reduce tax incentives for the oil industry. She is open to an interisland cable that would move energy between the islands in Hawaii. She strongly objects to expanded offshore oil drilling on the mainland.
Lingle, as governor, was instrumental in creating Hawaii's renewable energy goals. But she opposes a national standard as an unnecessary mandate. She would eventually phase out tax breaks for solar and oil because of the drain on state and federal budgets. She supports an interisland cable. She would consider more offshore oil drilling on the mainland as an option to reduce the nation's reliance on foreign oil.
"Energy self-sufficiency is a national concern, and the price of oil is not going down any time soon," said Hirono, who patterned her national renewable energy standard on a Pentagon initiative.
Hirono said a national standard would not pre-empt the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative or other state renewable portfolio standards. She said it would provide an incentive for the federal government and the private sector to invest in renewable energy, with states such as Hawaii potentially leading the way.
"We spend $4 billion on importing oil," she said. "And if we move aggressively, as we are, toward alternative renewables and using efficiency measures, then that's money that would be circulating in our economy."
Lingle said Hirono has a "fundamental lack of knowledge" about renewable energy policy and the efforts already taking place in Hawaii and most other states.
"I think her big-government, Washington, D.C., one-size-fits-all standard for energy is a reflection of her general feeling that the federal government knows what's best, and my feeling that the local communities know what's best," she said.
Lingle said Hawaii's renewable energy goals were established through bipartisan collaboration among her Republican administration, Democrats in the state Legislature, the state's utilities, environmentalists and the U.S. Department of Energy. She said the role of the federal government was to serve as an "honest broker" among competing interests, not to set mandates.
Many of the state's leaders on renewable energy, however, do not see danger in a national standard.
Hermina Morita, chairwoman of the state Public Utilities Commission, said a national standard would set a floor that could give the renewable energy market stability. She said there could be less interest in developing renewable energy for the long term if alternatives such as liquefied natural gas, for example, become cost-effective fuel options.
"The technology needs stability in moving forward," she said. "And the developers need a sense of predictability, a certainty, to sustain the market."
Mark Duda, principal and founder at RevoluSun, one of Hawaii's top solar companies, said a national standard would help focus the nation on renewable energy and fuel technologies. "It carves out a space in which you can innovate around the development of renewable energy," he said.
Hawaii appears ready to take more decisive action on renewable energy, but there is resistance over cost, equity and environmental risk. The state is considering whether to scale back a 35 percent tax credit for solar that, combined with a 30 percent federal credit that expires in 2016, gives homeowners and businesses a significant -- and some say overly generous -- incentive. Environmental and Native Hawaiian activists have protested a $1 billion interisland cable as an overreach that would divert neighbor island wind and geothermal resources to satisfy Oahu's energy needs. Community activists in Hawaii County are worried about the health and safety dangers of geothermal exploration.
Hirono would extend the state and federal tax credits for solar while reducing tax breaks and other subsidies for the oil industry. Lingle said she would phase out tax incentives for both renewable energy and fossil fuel over time because of the federal deficit but would give enough advance notice so consumers and businesses could make adjustments.
Both Hirono and Lingle support the concept of an interisland cable but want to ensure the neighbor islands gain substantial benefit from the project. Both candidates take a similar approach to geothermal.
"Clearly, the communities that are going to be impacted need to be at the table," Hirono said, adding that energy efficiency on each island is important before resources are transported between the islands.
Hirono said all renewable options should remain on the table.
"There's geothermal. There's wind. There's solar. There's ocean. We have a range. There's biofuels," she said. "We have a whole range of alternatives and renewables we can look to. And not to mention that we ought to be spending time on figuring out how to cut our energy use to begin with by becoming much more efficient."
Lingle believes an interconnected energy grid is critical.
"It's the same as having a transportation system that can link us up," she said. "It's having an energy system where the energy goes in both directions."
While there is no perfect source of energy, Lingle said, anything is better than relying on foreign oil.
"No matter what form, no matter what the nature of the source of energy is, whether it's burning oil or coal, whether it's wind energy, whether it's geothermal, whatever the source, there is something that's not perfect about it," she said. "But there is nothing as bad as sitting in the middle of the Pacific Ocean dependent upon 80 percent of our electricity -- our energy -- coming from foreign nations and foreign companies."
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, says North America could achieve energy independence by 2020 through expanded oil drilling off Virginia, North Carolina, the Gulf of Mexico and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.
President Barack Obama has also sought to increase domestic oil and natural gas production, but Romney's proposal is more aggressive and would transfer authority from the federal government to the states.
"I definitely don't support drilling in ANWR and other pristine areas or highly delicate areas," Hirono said. "And this continued reliance on fossil fuels is not the way to go over the long term."
Lingle said domestic oil and natural gas production is key to eventually eliminating dependence on foreign oil from unreliable sources. She said the United States should keep its options open in geographic areas with proven oil reserves, while following environmental safeguards, especially in places such as ANWR.
"I believe the track record of the Alaska pipeline has demonstrated that with proper planning, environmental sensitivity and implementation, it is possible to extract and transport domestic oil and gas resources without serious adverse impacts to tourism, fishing, wildlife migration, flora and fauna," she said.