Ask Blue Planet

We get all kinds of questions about the status and direction of Hawaii’s clean energy initiatives. Some are from homeowners who are thinking about installing solar PV; some are from activists who question new policy measures; some are about the impact and potential of various renewable energy sources; and some are about the costs and benefits of transitioning to clean energy in general.

We thought we’d post some of the most frequently asked questions here, along with our responses, to help everyone better understand who the stakeholders are and what’s going on in this complex, ever-changing industry.

If you have a burning clean energy question, please email us at info@blueplanetfoundation.org.


Does the mercury in CFLs make these bulbs more harmful to the environment than incandescent bulbs?

Burning fossil fuels to make electricity releases mercury into the environment. Since CFLs use 75% less energy than old bulbs, we burn a lot less fuel to power a CFL—and the amount of mercury that we save from being released is greater than the amount of mercury that is in the bulb.

Here are the calculations we've done to compare the amount of mercury in a CFL to the electricity production-related emissions to power an incandescent bulb:

Most CFLs have around 3 mg mercury (though much of that binds to the glass while the bulb is being used).

Mercury releases from HI powerplants vs CFL
2010 numbers:   

2204600    mg / lb    conversion
42    lbs Hg    Mercury & mercury compunds released ONSITE by Hawaii powerplants (that disclosed under TRI) in 2010 (note: total released, including offsite, was 467 lbs)
92593200    mg Hg    Hg released onsite by power plants
10013103760    kWh    Total kWh sales in 2010
0.009247203    mg/kWh    Amt of Hg produced per kWh
0.05    kW    Energy savings per CFL (vs. incandescent)
8000    
Life of bulb
400    kWh    Total energy savings per CFL
3.698881075    mg Hg    Amt of mercury avoided over life of CFL (this is roughly equivalent to the amount contained within the bulb)

Note: According to EPA, a majority of the Hg binds with the glass walls of the bulb over the bulb's life, leaving only about 11% to escape if the bulb is broken at the end of its life

For more information about CFLs, visit our CFL FAQ page.

What role should biofuels play in Hawaii’s clean energy future?

Biofuels will play an integral role in replacing fossil fuels. We see that role primarily in the transportation sector (cars, trucks, ships, planes) that currently consumes two-thirds of our oil imports.

The utility can play a role in helping to develop the market for biofuel production, but we are concerned about them focusing on liquid biofuels as a sustainable solution. By locking up early, long-term biofuel contracts—particularly for a versatile/fungible fuel like biodiesel—the utility may slow Hawaii’s overall transition to clean energy by taking away liquid biofuels from the transportation sector, where other renewables such as solar and wind are out of reach (no wind-powered planes yet). We have an abundant portfolio of solutions to produce electricity, but they require the utility to invest in a modern grid infrastruture and storage to enable maximizing their use. Biofuels are an “easier” solution for the utility, as they can essentially drop them into existing facilities. But that shortcut may shortchange the state's ability to wean itself from oil for all uses—we can't look at this problem in isolation.

The problem is really the structure of the market. With the utility, you have one regulated agent. With the transportation sector, we literally have nearly a million independent agents. If electric vehicles are likely to be the future cars of choice, rather than biofuel vehicles, we can make even better use of our solar, wind, and geothermal (and hopefully wave, OTEC, etc.) resources. But today, EVs make up less than 0.1% of passenger vehicles. And we have many vehicles that will be difficult to electrify. Trucks, buses, and ships can pretty much make use of biodiesel produced today—no new investment needed.

The challenge is—and this is why policy is needed—the folks buying and supplying fuel to trucks, buses, and ships lack the capacity to enter into a guaranteed 20-year purchase contract (which the utility can offer for biofuels, backed by ratepayers with the blessing of the PUC).

Bottom line: If biofuels can be sustainably and economically produced locally, they should be put to work powering our cars, trucks, ships, and airplanes—not stationary power plants. A state policy clarifying this preference for biofuels would help prevent solving one energy problem at the expense of another.


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