How Hawaii became a renewable energy model

 By Chris Dalby

Despite being the most dependent state on fossil fuels in the U.S, Hawaii is perfectly positioned to be a model for renewable energy. Wind-swept, sun-baked and sea-stroked, the Pacific state is embracing a renewable model…

Hawaii’s dependency on oil

Despite its many advantages in the pursuit of renewable energy, Hawaii’s remote nature and lack of oil production make it dependent on costly energy supply chains. As of 2016, it spent $5 billion a year on importing oil and 90 percent of its oil formerly came from outside the United States in 2003. From that high watermark, and since beginning its commitment to renewables, oil consumption is down 20 percent across the state.
This progress over 15 years is impressive but Hawaii is contemplating a far more ambitious target: to be entirely powered by renewable sources of energy by 2040. It faced a tough time setting that target. It faced two failures before the third iteration was approved.
One of the common obstacles to longstanding climate change policies is shifting government priorities over the years. In 2015, the state considered a law maintaining 100 percent of its electricity should come from renewable sources by 2045. However, the first proposal made by Hawaiian Electric Industries (HEI) about how to achieve this was rejected for lacking specifics, and the second was similarly denied when NextEra Energy tried to buy HEI.
Yet Hawaii has maintained a laser focus on its ambitious targets. In 2017, the updated version of this law was re-approved. The end goal was brought forward to 2040, while the island’s mayors added a fully renewable public transportation requirement, also by 2045.
The specifics are impressive, as several of the original targets were tightened or similarly shortened. A midway point will be sought by 2020, ensuring that 48 percent of the island’s power comes from sources other than imported LNG. Alongside that, 360 MW of solar energy, 157 MW of wind energy and 115 MW from demand response programs are to be added.
The demand response target, in particular, shows that the burden of achieving this goal will partially fall on Hawaiians themselves. Hawaiian Electric already has a campaign to encourage demand response, allowing customers to reduce their demand at times when wind and solar capacity is low. Customers can readily access information on how to meet these targets, down to which appliance to shut off. With different power companies and varying targets per island, this chart provides a handy observation to how Hawaii intends everyone to participate.

Source: Hawaiian Electric Companies' 2016 Power Supply Improvement Plan

Ironing out the kinks

One element that might prevent Hawaii from keeping this momentum going is the changing of administrations. At the federal level, climate change and renewable energy have risen and fallen from favor over the years. But, in another show of intent, last June, Governor David Ige signed into law Hawaii’s intention to abide by the Paris Climate Change Agreement. The state is seen as by far the leading example of America meeting its climate change targets and it appears to be confidently on the way to fulfilling its Paris commitments. “Tides are getting higher, biodiversity is shrinking, coral is bleaching, coastlines are eroding, weather is becoming more extreme. We must acknowledge these realities at home. That is why Hawaii is united in its political leadership on tackling climate change,” said Ige at the signing.
But what is the catch? Is it that easy for a state or country, even with the will to do so, to overhaul its environmental stance? Not exactly.
For starters, the proper technological and financial barriers must be overcome. It is not always easy for public utilities to become testing grounds for technologies and tariffs which can impair their performance and their duty to customers. On Hawaii, Hawaiian Electric, Maui Electric and Hawaii Electric Light, in recent years, have seen rollouts of everything from battery-backed solar and wind plants to smart inverters and peak-shifted electric vehicle charging.
The argument is that such research and testing should be smoothed over in the private sector before committing public utilities to use them, since a failure will negatively impact the public. The utilities in Hawaii had been put under stress by these adoptions. For example, in 2015, the Kauai Island Utility Cooperative (KIUC) installed a battery storage system to make the best use of its solar irradiance but it failed shortly after launch. The battery was found to be too small and the software controls too unreliable. Net metering, seen as a key driver of solar penetration doubling every year from 2010 to 2013, has been removed. HEI claimed it simply could not cope with the rapid increase in solar panels.

Resilience at all costs

Despite these concerns, Hawaii has made it clear that its islands must stand united and share the risks to reach the 2040 plan. The state declared October 5 to be Energy Efficiency Day last year, with all four mayors and Hawaii Energy working together to inform people about how to save energy.
Now, the successes are piling up. Hawaii ranks first in the nation for installed solar capacity per capita. Tax credits have been made available for those installing PV systems at home. In late January, it was announced a wave energy buoy is to be deployed off the coast of Oahu in a test ahead of a potential grid-scale installation.
Coupled with Hawaii’s political resistance to efforts to undermine renewable energy or dismiss man-made climate change, it is no surprise the state is being seen as an example to follow.

READ MORE: California’s cleantech revolution by Andrew Burger

about the author
Chris Dalby
Journalist. Editor. China, Mexico, Latin America, Asia, place branding, Olympics, oil and gas, mining, renewable energy, international politics.