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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 30, 2008

Key energy bills need push to keep on track

The state Legislature has been working to fuel Hawai'i's move toward renewable energy. That campaign is progressing fairly well, but the effort will need an extra push from the public to get past a few boulders in the path before a critical deadline on Friday.

Among the obstacles: One bill in the hopper is a tax increase to be paid at the pump never a comfortable prospect in an election year.

The proposal is House Bill 3444, which, along with other parts of the energy package, will face a key vote by the Senate Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday.

The bill would create an Energy Security Special Fund by raising the Environmental Response and Energy Security Tax from 5 cents per barrel of petroleum to 20 cents.

The major worry propelling this initiative is that a federal fund that now underwrites energy research and development projects such as those undertaken by the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute on everything from solar to biomass fuel will be tapped out within four years.

Few expect an alternative source from the federal government to fill the void, not even the new federal partnership that will bring in some program money. Creating the new fund is then essential.

The Lingle administration fears the tax will hurt middle- and lower-income families the most. That's a healthy concern, but here's the bottom line: The per-person cost of the tax would amount to $3.85 per year bearable, if it means renewable energy becomes a reality soon.

Bills that bear watching:

  • A mandate for solar energy water heating in new construction (SB 644) should pass, but without the loosely defined exceptions being offered in cases where the installation would be "cost prohibitive" or where energy-saving gas heaters are substituted. There's no purpose in pressing for alternative energy if there's going to be an escape hatch around every bend.

  • There's been a move to restore state and county oversight in HB 2863, which aims to streamline permits for renewable energy sites. That's a welcome course correction.

  • The Senate still needs to take a careful look at HB 2502 at its Tuesday hearing to ensure that the bill to allow for solar energy production on marginal agricultural lands does not define "marginal" too broadly. The displacement of existing grazing or other ag uses should be avoided.

    It's encouraging to see progress in legislation to make Hawai'i less energy-dependent, as long as the state takes care to balance other needs of its economy and environment.