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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 28, 2006

Plugging in to renewable energy

By Henry Curtis

Electricity-generating photovoltaic panels on the roof of Pearl Harbor's Building 54. The sun is just one of several renewable energy resources available in Hawai'i. Others include wind, waves and ocean thermal energy conversion.


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At the start of the 2006 Legislature, the governor introduced a bold energy package. The Democratic majority countered with fluff over substance. After all was said and done, an intense fight over Hawai'i's energy future has been shifted from the public arena to a government commission, where established players have traditionally held the upper hand.

Hawai'i, with abundant renewable energy resources, is falling behind much of the rest of the world.

We must do better.

At the beginning of the session, the environmental community made it clear in testimony that it supported the Lingle administration's approach. During the session, some efforts were made to combine the best elements of the various bills. Several bills made it to conference committee, where the Senate announced that the bills would be discussed informally, outside of the public arena.

What emerged was disappointing.

The Legislature committed state money to promote alternative fuels (including fossil fuels) for vehicles, growing water-intensive crops to produce ethanol and transforming the state to a fossil-fuel-based hydrogen economy. State funds would be used to study ethanol and hydrogen options but not their environmental, social and cultural impacts.

All other major decisions were punted to the Public Utilities Commission. The PUC would be given the authorization, but not the requirement, to implement them.

Specifically, Senate Bill 2957 promotes exploring renewable hydrogen programs while transforming Hawai'i toward a fossil-fuel-based hydrogen economy. The National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences report, "The Hydrogen Economy," (2004) stated: "Hydrogen — although it could transform the energy system in the long run — does not represent a short-term solution to any of the nation's energy problems."

SB 2957 also promotes ethanol as a solution. The NRDC, a proponent of ethanol, released a report "Growing Energy" (2004) which stated that launching an aggressive national campaign toward ethanol now and solving several problems simultaneously will allow us to break even financially in 2015.

HB 2175 directs agencies to implement energy efficiency programs for buildings and vehicles. However, the agencies are given off-ramps for not meeting the goals.

SB 3185 allows the Public Utilities Commission the option of putting out a request for proposal for an energy efficiency entity to provide residents and businesses with innovative and creative ways to reduce energy demand. But then it requires that entity to do what the utility is already doing.

The PUC may lower the amount of renewable energy required to generate electricity from 20 percent by 2020 to 10 percent by 2020, while still allowing heat recovered from boiling oil to count as renewable energy.

It may impose a penalty if the utility can't meet these goals, but the number of excuses the utility can use is sharply increased.

Finally, SB 3185 allows the PUC to require the utility to share some of the cost of rising oil prices, thus creating an incentive for utilities to shift toward renewables. But the same bill requires their customers to pay the utilities a bonus for doing this.

Of all state agencies, the PUC operates most like the judiciary. Each issue that the commission takes on would be decided in a multiyear, adversarial proceeding involving competing parties, discovery, an evidentiary hearing, cross-examination and an eventual ruling.

The PUC has significantly changed for the better in the past few years, bringing aboard young talent, providing Web capabilities, and looking at alternative ways of gathering and exchanging information.

Unfortunately, half of the ratepayer money used to fund PUC operations is still siphoned off to provide back-door money to the state budget.

What lies ahead is an intense fight, almost totally outside of the public arena. The commission has a number of significant dockets open and will have to open many more to handle these new issues. Very few players are involved.

For example, the parties in the PUC docket deciding whether HECO should build a new fossil-fuel generating plant are HECO, the state and Life of the Land. The parties in a statewide energy-efficiency docket include a number of utilities, agencies, consultants, trade groups and Life of the Land.

We are there to advocate a fundamental shift in energy policy.

Hawai'i has the most abundant and varied renewable energy resources in the world— including photovoltaic, wind, ocean wave and ocean thermal energy conversion.

Using local renewable energy resources creates local jobs in the renewable energy high-technology industry, diversifies the economy, increases state and county taxes, reduces the state's balance of trade deficit, increases local control over our economic future and provides a hedge against global warming.

The Pentagon's October 2003 study, "Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security," pointed out that the impact of global warming may be pushing the climate to a tipping point. We are like a canoe that's gradually tilted until suddenly it capsizes, and the resulting global impacts could be greater than all wars combined.

The state Constitution (Article XI, Section 1) states: "the state ... shall conserve and protect ... natural resources, including ... energy sources, and shall promote the development and utilization of these resources ... in furtherance of the self-sufficiency of the state."

Meanwhile, others with fewer renewable energy options have blown past us in generating electricity from renewable energy resources: Iceland (100 percent), Fiji (79.6 percent) Norway (76 percent), Austria (72 percent), Sweden (55 percent), Latvia (47 percent), Samoa (38.5 percent), California (31 percent), Slovenia (31 percent), Corsica (30 percent), Portugal (29 percent), Romania (28 percent), Finland (28 percent) and Turkey (24 percent).

We’re only at 7.5 percent to 8 percent. We must do better.

Henry Curtis is executive director of Life of the Land, a nonprofit Hawai'i environmental organization. He wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.