Stateline Story

Hawaiian Legislator Makes Waves for Renewable Energy

Residents of Hawaii pay the highest electricity rates in the nation due to their dependence on imported gas and oil to generate energy. But state Rep. Cynthia Thielen believes the Hawaiian Islands are surrounded by the cleanest, cheapest and most abundant source of energy in the world the ocean.

Thielen, the assistant Republican leader in Hawaii's House of Representatives, hopes that Hawaii will soon become a leader in generating electricity by harnessing the power of the ocean's waves.

"Hawaii has one of the best wave climates in the world, we could virtually power our island on wave energy for one third the cost of fossil fuel generated electricity, but without any negative impact on the environment," Thielen said in a telephone interview.

Thielen, who turned 70 in September and is in her seventh term in the legislature, has been a life-long environmentalist. Although she is a Republican and considers herself a fiscal conservative, she has been a vocal critic of the state's environmental policies and supports developing clean sources of renewable energy - an area she said Hawaii is woefully lacking in.

She said island nations like Japan and England have been experimenting with wave power technology since the 1970's with mixed results, but technological developments made in the past decade have made wave power economically feasible.

On the Scottish isle of Islay, for example, the world's first commercial wave power station has been generating enough clean, renewable energy to power 400 homes for the past three years, Thielen said.

Although many wave energy devices have been invented, none operate on a large scale and very few have been tested in a real ocean environment, energy experts say.

Thielen believes that wave power could not only lower electricity rates, but also reduce pollution by lessening Hawaii's consumption of fossil fuels.

Residents of Hawaii pay on average 16 cents per kilowatt/hour of electricity. The average American pays about 8 cents per kilowatt/hour, according to the Energy Information Administration.

Hawaii's electricity rates are highest in the nation because the state depends on imported fossil fuels for 93 percent of its energy needs, costing about $2 billion a year, Thielen said.

"The main reason I support wave technology is because it will bring non-polluted money into Hawaii's economy," Thielen said.

Thielen has made a career of protecting the environment, first as an environmental lawyer and then as a lawmaker. But she got off to an unusually late start, waiting to attend college and law school until her four children were grown.

She was 44 when she graduated from law school in 1978, the same year as her daughter Laura.

The two opened Hawaii's first and only mother-daughter law firm and practiced environmental law for most of the 1980s. Since most of her cases were against the state for lax enforcement of environmental regulations, Thielen decided to enter politics and won a seat in the legislature against a Democratic incumbent in 1990.

Last month, Thielen spent over $2000 of her own money to attend a conference on wave energy in Cork, Ireland, with European energy officials and wave power researchers. At the conference, Thielen presented a proclamation from Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle (R) inviting the conference delegates to hold their next conference in Hawaii.

After attending the conference, Thielen said she hopes that American energy companies and researchers will follow Europe's example in pursuing wave energy.

"After listening to the international experts, I am sure wave energy is a feasible renewable source for Hawaii that will lower our utility rates," Thielen said.

But the biggest obstacle keeping Hawaii from developing wave energy is the reluctance of the state's utility company to invest in renewable energy sources, she said.

Two years ago, Thielen pushed for a state mandate requiring Hawaiian Electric Company (HECO) and its subsidiaries to use 10 percent renewable energy by 2010 and double that by 2020.

The utilities opposed the measure, arguing that a renewable energy mandate would greatly increase electricity rates, and the legislature voted it down.

"Hawaiian Electric is a monopoly and is committed to fight against renewable resources because they're knee deep in oil," Thielen said.

While recognizing that wave energy has the potential of providing electricity, a spokesperson for HECO said that the company believes the technology is too expensive to pursue at this time. Currently, 7 percent of HECO's electricity is produced from renewable sources, mainly geothermal.

"We want to do everything we can to support (wave energy) for future development, but at this point in time we don't think it's quite viable yet," Lynne Unemori, HECO director of communications said.

There are more than a dozen types of wave power generators. Some use flotation devices that power generators as they rise and fall in the surf. Others use wave power to force air through turbines, generating electricity.

A small-scale project to test the viability of wave power is underway at the Marine Corps Base Hawaii, located in Thielen's district. The Navy plans to launch a buoy type wave power generator this November and will collect data on it for several years.

Thielen hopes to see the project expanded statewide if it proves successful.

"Hawaii should encourage other companies to test their technologies in Hawaiian waters as well, in order to select the leading wave technologies to power our islands," Thielen said.