Monday, January 22, 2001
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Posted on: Monday, January 22, 2001

Islands need new electricity strategy

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Staff Writer

The crisis in California’s electrical grid has people at every position on the political spectrum pointing fingers. In the midst of it all, is there a lesson for Hawaii?

California produces less electricity per capita than any other state in the union and makes up for it by buying power from elsewhere. When the cost of that power went up, California utilities found themselves paying more for the additional power than they could charge consumers.

The big utilities have now spent billions of dollars more for power than they are taking in from their rate payers, and all are in severe financial straits. There is talk of power company bankruptcy and of dramatic impacts on the entire nation’s economy as a result.

Some folks are blaming politicians and regulators for not ensuring there would be enough power or not being tough enough in forcing people to engage in energy conservation strategies. Some blame the cost of fuel oil. Others, like the conservative Ayn Rand Institute, are blaming environmentalists for stopping construction of new power plants.

While Californians are engaging in serious conservation to keep the power on, the utilities are talking about "doomsday" fallback positions, things like regular six-hour blackouts as often as twice daily for residential areas.

Residents trying to forestall further blackouts tell pollsters they are willing to support a system that calls for conservation, with penalties for violators.

There are reports that many Californians have installed alternatives, such as wind turbines and solar panels, at great expense.

Some are taking advantage of an existing California Energy Commission "Buy Down Program," which provides cash rebates for installing renewable energy power systems. While the benefits to the taxpayer of such a program might have been debated as questionable earlier, today one might argue that it’s cheaper than taxpayers having to buy expensive out-of-state power and sell it to utilities cheap. Buying power for the troubled utilities could cost California $1 billion for 12 days’ worth.

Hawaii can’t buy power from across the state line. We either produce it ourselves or it’s not there.

Because the Islands don’t produce fossil fuel, the situation seems to argue for a serious, broad-based energy strategy, one that includes locally produced power-plant fuels such as biomass; support for large-scale alternative production from wind and sun; strong incentives for residents and businesses to conserve; and serious consideration — despite power companies’ objections — of programs such as some form of net metering that allows those who produce their own power to sell their surplus to the utilities for the same price the utilities sell it.

Jan TenBruggencate is The Advertiser’s Kauai bureau chief and its science and environment writer. You can call him at (808) 245-3074 or e-mail

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