Hawaii: Resistant to Change or Powerless To Reduce Hydrocarbon-Dependence?

An over-reliance on oil has long cast a dark shadow over Hawaii. Oil accounts for more than 85% of the state’s energy needs, the highest margin of any US state, exacerbated by the unique hydrocarbon intensity of Hawaii’s electricity generation [1]. Whilst the share of renewables in global electricity generation has risen in recent years, 66% of Hawaii’s electrical supply remains generated by oil [1].

As reported by The Economist, Hawaii’s challenging and varied topography are often not conducive to mass renewable energy generation, with stringent legislation further preventing its utilisation. For example, no wind farms exist on Kauai due to laws protecting the island’s seabird populations [2]. Further complicating matters, the isolation of Hawaii’s islands from one another means the state does not reap the benefits of an integrated electrical grid [1]. Thus, due to the stark differences between the islands’ energy systems, the potential to decarbonise Hawaii’s entire energy system is made challenging. Although utility-scale solar accounted for 22.8% of the electricity sold in Kauai in 2019, it accounted for just 3.5% of the electricity sold state-wide, evidencing the difficulty of implementing a state-wide renewable energy strategy [2].

This isolation represents Hawaii’s greatest energy challenge. Travel to both the US mainland and between islands requires air travel. Air transportation accounted for 33.9% of Hawaii’s petroleum use in 2018, with commercial aviation using approximately 700m gallons of jet fuel annually [2]. Whilst archaic legislation has further consolidated Hawaiian oil dependence; the 1920 Jones Act, stipulating that cargo transported between US states by sea must travel on American owned and staffed vessels, consequently increased shipping costs, prompting Hawaiian refineries to import cheaper oil [3]. The legacy of such legislation remains visible today; in 2019, imports of oil and coal represented 57% of the total tonnes of cargo imports through Hawaiian ports [2].

This overreliance has placed Hawaii at the mercy of increasingly volatile petrostates. In contrast to the remainder of the USA, for whom 3.5% of total oil imports in 2021 came from Russia, Hawaii imports Russian oil heavily [4].

Honolulu Harbor is the principal seaport of the State, handling over 11m tons of cargo per year.

Thus, the global economic fallout from the war in Ukraine is likely to be felt acutely in Hawaii. The prospect of avoiding this diminished entirely when Hawaii’s state oil refinery, Par Pacific, announced in March the suspension of purchases of Russian crude oil [5]. This was swiftly followed by the White House’s Executive Order to ban Russian oil imports nationwide. Subsequently, oil prices have soared, prompting warnings to Hawaiian Electric customers that their electricity bills, already the most expensive in the USA, could rise, by 20% on Maui, and up to 25% on Molokai [1].

However, this may serve as the most compelling argument to date to accelerate Hawaii’s clean energy transition, for which there has long been a popular appetite amongst Hawaiians. Nationally, the state ranks in the bottom ten for energy consumption per capita, whilst a state law in 2015 stipulated that electricity should be entirely generated from clean energy by 2045, becoming the first state to make the commitment [6]. Kauai has made significant strides in reducing its fossil fuel reliance. An ambitious goal, set in 2008, to power half of the island with renewable energy, has since been realised, with approximately 70% of Kauai’s electrical grid now renewably powered [7].

This appetite is reflected by the ordinary Hawaiian. Hawaii has the second-highest number of electric vehicles (EV) per capita in the USA, behind only California [1]. The number of registered EVs in Hawaii has risen sharply in recent years, increasing 30.6% on the previous year in 2021, a trend that has continued into 2022 [8]. Even with Hawaii’s oil-dependent electrical grid, EVs remain the environmentally conscious choice, releasing 37% of the per-mile emissions of an average 22mpg car [9]. Further testifying to Hawaiians’ commitment to ditch gasoline-powered transport are the findings of the American Community Survey. The survey found that Hawaiian workers are more likely to carpool than the workers of any other state, with 14.7% travelling to work in a carpool [2].

Such willingness to embrace cleaner transport modes provides an indication that, if supported by the state, Hawaii can reduce their hydrocarbon dependence.

As an Island territory, Hawaii depends on a thriving international aviation industry in order to remain connected. This geographical feature arguably makes island-wide decarbonisation harder to achieve.

Extensive state support for fleet electrification offers promise. All four Hawaiian mayors have pledged a shared goal of full renewability in ground transportation by 2035 and have since offered a generous $7,500 federal tax credit for EV buyers [10]. Similarly, a recent Hawaii Energy scheme offers a tax rebate of up to $27,000 for applicants who provide Level 2 EV charging stations [10]. Hawaii’s progressive state-led EV policy has earned it high growth rates in EV ownership and a 10th place ranking in the US for EV-friendly policies, charging networks and incentives [10].

Policymakers’ commitment to the energy transition is increasingly reflected through Hawaii’s urban mobility strategy. Hawaii has invested extensively in transit-oriented development, with Honolulu’s High-Capacity Transit Corridor project symptomatic of this. The rail project, which opened its first segment in 2021 and aims to facilitate 116,300 weekday passenger trips by 2030, is integrated with investment in interlinked sidewalks, bicycle facilities, and bus transit connections [11]. The intention is to provide complete access to amenities through an established network of rail, bus, and cycle routes throughout Honolulu. On completion, the rail will operate along a 20-mile stretch of Oahu, encouraging the utilisation of energy efficient modes of transport between Kapolei and Ala Moana Centre [10].

However, Hawaii’s contradictory attitude to the energy transition is summed up by its aviation industry. As aforementioned, air transportation accounts for most of Hawaii’s petroleum use. To reduce its reliance on oil, Hawaii desperately requires a clean aviation strategy. Despite this, Hawaiian Airlines’ 2022 Corporate Kuleana report did little in the way of inciting tangible change. Whilst acknowledging that sustainable jet fuel is the most effective way of decarbonising aviation, Hawaiian Airlines’ environmental pledges extend to aircraft efficiency improvements and carbon offset schemes. A recent partnership with Conservation International offers passengers the opportunity to offset emissions in projects validated by the requirements of Verified Carbon Standards, such as the Chyulu Hills REDD+ project in south-eastern Kenya [12].

This represents little more than a redistribution of aviation emissions, putting immediate emissions reductions off. Hawaii is to an extent, powerless, subject to industry developments. Until sustainable aviation fuel is a feasible strategy for commercial airlines, the state will remain in an oil-dependent chokehold, despite the strong internal willingness to embrace cleaner energy.


[1] The Economist, “Hawaii’s oil-dependent economy is being battered by Russia’s war”. 30 April 2022. [Online]. Available: https://www.economist.com/united-states/hawaiis-oil-dependent-economy-is-being-battered-by-russias-war/21808955. [Accessed 10 May 2022].

[2] Hawaii State Energy Office, “Hawaii’s Energy Facts & Figures”. 2020. [Online]. Available: https://energy.hawaii.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/HSEO_FactsAndFigures-2020.pdf. [Accessed 15 May 2022].

[3] Fortune, “Mainland America doesn’t rely heavily on Russian oil, but Hawaii does”. March 4 2022. [Online]. Available: https://fortune.com/2022/03/03/hawaii-oil-russia-ukraine-energy-prices/. [Accessed 12 May 2022].

[4] Forbes, “Percent of U.S. Oil Imports From Russia Highest In Decades – At 3.5%”. March 5 2022. [Online]. Available: https://www.forbes.com/sites/kenroberts/2022/03/05/percent-of-us-oil-imports-from-russia-highest-in-decades—at-35/?sh=5aabca41aae8. [Accessed 10 May 2022].

[5] Associated Press, “Hawaii suspends Russian oil imports after Ukraine invasion”. March 5 2022. [Online]. Available: https://apnews.com/article/russia-ukraine-business-hawaii-honolulu-south-america-353a468b38b27d63f4a35be3f4fe8daf. [Accessed 10 May 2022].

[6] US Energy Information Administration, “Hawaii State Energy Profile”. 17 February 2022. [Online]. Available: https://www.eia.gov/state/print.php?sid=HI. [Accessed 8 May 2022].

[7] Honolulu Civil Beat, “Kauai Quit Using Oil to Produce Most of its Electricity Years Ago. That’s Paying Off Now”. March 15 2022. [Online]. Available https://www.civilbeat.org/2022/03/kauai-quit-using-oil-to-produce-most-of-its-electricity-years-ago-thats-paying-off-now/. [Accessed 11 May 2022].

[8] Hawaii Business Magazine, “EV Sales in Hawaii are Up 30.6%, and Many Buyers Say They’re Glad They Made the Switch”. January 3 2022. [Online]. Available: https://www.hawaiibusiness.com/buying-electric-vehicles-hawaii-sales-up-2021-ev-sales/#:~:text=In%20August%202021%2C%20the%20state,Business%2C%20Economic%20Development%20%26%20Tourism. [Accessed 15 May 2022].

[9] Sustainable Transportation Coalition of Hawaii, “Alternative Fuels/Technologies”. 2020. [Online]. Available: https://www.stchawaii.org/learn/alternative-fuels-technologies/#:~:text=Under%20Hawaii’s%20average%202019%20electricity,battery%20costs%20have%20come%20down. [Accessed 14 May 2022].

[10] Sustainable Transportation Coalition of Hawaii, “Alternative Modes”. 2021. [Online]. Available: https://www.stchawaii.org/learn/alternative-modes/. [Accessed 12 May 2022].

[11] Federal Transit Administration, “High Capacity Transit Corridor Project – Honolulu, Hawaii”. December 2015. [Online]. Available: https://www.transit.dot.gov/sites/fta.dot.gov/files/docs/HI_Honolulu_HCT_Profile_FY17_0.pdf. [Accessed 11 May 2022].

[12] Hawaiian Airlines, “Hawaiian Airlines 2022 Corporate Kuleana Report”. May 2 2022. [Online]. Available: https://issuu.com/hoike/docs/hawaiianairlines-2022-corporate_kuleana_report. [Accessed 11 May 2022].