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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 16, 2008

Energy bills should keep environmental balance

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It is possible to move aggressively toward energy independence without being reckless about it.

So, the challenge facing the state Legislature this session is whether it will find that delicate balance between prudence and resolve on the promotion of alternative, renewable energy sources.

There is a heavy platter of proposals on the table before lawmakers this session and a state administration that is pursuing partnerships with the U.S. Department of Energy all of which offer the uplifting prospect that something useful might be accomplished this session.

But not all the bills will result in real progress toward the goal of making Hawai'i less dependent on fossil fuels.

For example, House Bill 2506 proposes that the Legislative Reference Bureau research ways to reorganize state agencies to help advance the state's comprehensive long-term energy strategy.

Let's not waste energy on this one at this point. The state administration has testified against it: Various officials correctly pointed out that any such restructuring would make more sense after the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism finishes the biofuels plan that lawmakers mandated last year.

And calling for a study would be another cause for delay. Hawai'i has a serious problem with its reliance on petroleum-based energy, one that affects its environment as well as its economy. Ordering up this study would be "focusing on the deck chairs, and not the iceberg," as Henry Curtis of the environmental group Life of the Land remarked, an exercise that would delay substantive work on the issue.

So what should be done? Here is a look at some of the key proposals still percolating through the state Capitol:

  • HB 2505 would create a position for a energy facilitator at DBEDT to help shepherd energy proposals through the permitting maze that can delay a project for years. The new hire would create a one-stop permitting service and oversee improvements including a faster online permit application option.

    This seems a simple way to smooth the bureaucratic path without overhauling the bureaucracy. And it's a more measured approach than some of the Republican minority's proposals for energy economic "zones" that could scale back the level of government oversight too far.

  • Similarly, it's disturbing to see an attempt to expedite permits embodied in HB 2863, which creates a consolidated process for approving renewable energy sites. Some consolidation can be workable, but this version eliminates opportunities for most public hearings unless they're mandated by federal law. And it includes a clause asserting that it supersedes all state and county laws.

    That's extreme, and would shut down needed review of projects. Hawai'i is a newcomer in the field of alternative energy, which means projects are sure to have consequences that have not been anticipated. We need coordinated, timely review, not mistakes.

    This bill will come up for a key Senate hearing at 2:45 p.m. Tuesday in conference room 414, where these concerns should be raised.

  • HB 644, which would mandate solar water heating in new construction, is a bold step that deserves an endorsement. Some fine-tuning may be possible Hawaiian Electric Co. is concerned that there are some projects for which solar water panels may not be economically feasible. But the state does need to accelerate its move away from oil-produced electricity, especially with all the residential development anticipated in coming decades.

  • It's easy to support the intent of HB 2502, which would make a solar energy facility a permitted use in agricultural district land with lower-quality soil. But there needs to be a way of more precisely defining an appropriate site. Some land with Class D or E soil is in active use for grazing and other agricultural purposes, so it would be a shame to further erode our struggling agricultural industry with one stroke.

  • Raising a tax is never a popular move, but the proposal to do so for the creation of a Energy Security Special Fund is warranted. HB 3444 would raise the Environmental Response and Energy Security Tax from 5 cents per barrel of petroleum to 20 cents, with about 15 cents going into the energy fund.

    It's sure to be passed on to consumers at the pump, but analysts argue that the per-person cost would amount to $3.85 per year.

    That's a worthwhile investment if the result is a fund for research and development of multiple modes of renewable energy for Hawai'i.

    Now the state needs to see that the money is used wisely to tap the Islands' reservoir of power from the wind, waves, geothermal and, of course, the sun.

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