For Earth Day 2011, the Blue Planet Foundation held a public gathering on the steps of the Hawaii state capitol to bring awareness to House Bill 1520. As the crowd of 300+ dwindled, I caught up with Jeff Mikulina, Executive Director of Blue Planet Foundation. The non-profit’s stated goal is to rid the world of fossil fuels, starting with Hawaii. Its more official, though perhaps less stated goal is to innovate policies and technologies in Hawaii that we can export globally. Perhaps its most powerful communication is the ticker on its website that shows how many gallons of oil have been burned in Hawaii in the mere seconds since you opened their homepage, and the dollars that have flowed out of Hawaii to buy said oil.
SC: Congratulations on a good rally. About 300 people or so?
JM: It’s great to see the energy of everyone in this state about the issue. Wonderful, also to have the Governor speak for us, and to have [slam poet] Kealoha perform to raise awareness.
SC: You want to give us the long and short of the bill?
JM: House Bill 1520-SD2, currently before the Legislature in Hawaii, would allow on-bill finance. It basically removes the up front cost of solar or efficiency for residential customers and lets them pay for the cost through savings over time. It would direct the public utilities commission to structure the program. We see it as a powerful tool to make clean energy more accessible for residents.
SC: The current state of affairs is that Hawaii’s one of the most active solar consumers, up there with California. But yet, the state still gets upwards of 95% of its energy from burning oil and a little coal?
JM: We’re very dependent on imported fossil fuels. People want to do the right thing, but with the current economic environment, it’s hard to get past the up front cost for energy efficiency retrofits or solar upgrades. People can go to the bank and get credit, but it creates too many hurdles that stops action.
SC: So this bill is kind of like the PACE program that was killed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac recently.
JM: Yes. It’s like a cell phone–you go to the store, sign up for the service, pay a monthly fee, and usually no cost for the phone. This bill is similar to that for solar or energy. The way it is right now, it’s like you have to go to the Sprint store and they make you sign a 20 year contract and pay thousands up front for your phone.
This bill also addresses the renter market and the classic Catch 22. The renter doesn’t want to invest in something when they’re likely moving out in a year or two. The landlord doesn’t, since they don’t typically pay the electric bill. This bill allows the homeowner to commit to the upgrade, with neither the landlord nor renter owning the solar panels. The renter continues to pay roughly the same for their electric, maybe even less, and the landlord has very little involvement. For them, the benefit is that it might help them rent the unit the next time, and with lower electric bills, tenants are less likely to miss rent payments.
SC: What are the odds the bill will pass?
JM: The concept is just going to keep getting more popular. We remain hopeful that this will pass. Even if it passes, it’ll go to the Public Utility Commission and they’ll iron out final details of how it actually works, so it may be a year before we see real action with it, but the sooner we get the ball rolling…
SC: …the sooner we can slow down that crazy counter on your website?
JM: That’s the goal.
For more information, see blueplanetfoundation.org. In the time it took me to write this article, Hawaii burned over 10,000 gallons of oil to produce electricity….part of it to power my little laptop. It’s time to change that equation.
Scott Cooney is the author of Build a Green Small Business (McGraw-Hill), and covers green business strategy on GreenBusinessOwner.com.