Government renewable energy officials announced they are accepting bids from contractors to do an environmental study of the cable's possible impacts on whales, the ocean floor and coral reefs.
"Hawaii has become the test center for how you integrate large amounts of wind and sun," said Robbie Alm, executive vice president for Hawaiian Electric Co. "If we can make it work in Hawaii, we can make it work anywhere on the planet.
But many hurdles remain before it's even decided whether the cable should be built. Communities on Maui, Lanai and Molokai would have to agree to feed their energy to Honolulu, and the state needs to decide how electricity customers would pay for its cost, said Jeff Mikulina, executive director of the Blue Planet Foundation, founded to support clean energy initiatives.
Completing the environmental study and obtaining permits could take two to three years, and building the cable would take another few months. The cost has been estimated at anywhere from $600 million to $2 billion for the initial 30-mile underwater link.
"The main challenge is having an honest discussion and not saying it's a foregone conclusion," Mikulina said. "The other challenge is, who's going to pay for it?"
Gov. Linda Lingle said the cable is needed to wean the islands off their dependence on foreign oil, which sucks between $5 billion and $7 billion out of the state annually and could wreck the local economy if it were ever cut off.
The undersea cable could create a statewide power grid that fits in with Lingle's goal of obtaining 40 percent of the state's power from renewable sources by 2030. Currently, Hawaii gets about 10 percent of its electricity from renewables.
"We are being watched by the entire nation... because we are moving so rapidly, so confidently, into the future," Lingle said.
The announcement came about a year after the state and Hawaiian Electric signed an agreement to move the state away from dependence on fossil fuels for electricity and ground transportation.