Interview: Hawaii’s Green Economic Transition Story

As part of my research on the U.S.’s proverbial canary in a coal mine–Hawaii–I recently had the pleasure of meeting Shanah Trevenna, author of Surfing Tsunamis of Change–A Handbook for Change Agents, and one of the Board Members of the Sustainability Association of Hawaii. Trevenna will be in San Francisco this Friday, March 25, 2011, to give a talk about her book at the Green Arcade Bookstore, so I sat down with her to discuss the book, Hawaii, and her all-of-a-sudden timely book title.

I found her book inspiring as a story of change in a place where the culture can sometimes be a barrier to progress. Instead of focusing on the sustainability aspect of her work, the book instead focuses on the process of change, and as such, it’s a tremendous tool for anyone interested in bringing about change within an organization.

Trevenna was recognized as one of the five people who “will shape Hawaii’s future” in the next 50 years by Pacific Business Magazine, was featured in a two page headline spread in Honolulu’s main newspaper, and is a Distinguished Lecturer for the University of Hawaii system. She holds an Masters in Urban Planning, Bachelors in Mechanical Engineering, and is currently pursuing a PhD in political science. She will soon be bringing her message to the mainland with an upcoming book tour on the east and west coast.

I was sold on her book by a section she wrote about the inspiration she got for her work in Hawaii. After reading Hawaiian Elders Speak by MJ Harden, she came to believe, “Hawaii had what the world needed: a diverse multicultural, accepting, warm society integrated with rich natural surroundings and grounded in indigenous values. Part of the US economy, solutions in Hawaii could perhaps be replicated throughout the most consuming and polluting country in the world. Yet its strategic location would allow it to serve as a model that could influence both the eastern and western hemispheres.”

Scott Cooney: Your book details the culture of Hawaii quite a bit and deals realistically with the limitations of the area, both in terms of its political system and its culture. What’s the most frustrating thing right now, and how do you see it being addressed?

Shanah Trevenna: In Hawaii, when university students enter the system, there is no clear green career path. They have to get the experience from volunteering and internships, putting the pieces together themselves. There are no trainings available for certifications like RESNET yet, though there are things in place for the community college thanks to a $6 M grant from the Federal Government as part of ARRA. There is no timetable for when the funds will be released, but may be as soon as the 2011-2012 school year.

SC: How about microenterprise development and support for the entrepreneurs creating the jobs of the green economy?

ST: One of the promising things we have in this arena is the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative (2008). The National Renewable Energy Lab and the EPA got involved as they watch the most aggressive energy policy in the country come to fruition here in Hawaii. It’s helped to create the fastest growing sector of the economy (renewable energy). The average pay in the sector is $60K, which is very respectable in this economy.

SC: You mention the energy policy in the state to go 70% clean energy by 2030. What’s your overall take on the state’s lofty goals?

ST: The state’s commitment has been an effective community engagement tool, and the commitment has also helped us garner national support and attention. It really mobilized everyone, even our last GOP gubernatorial candidate. The feed-in tariff that just recently passed was very necessary, but the details have yet to be worked out…if HECO [Hawaii’s utility] cites technical difficulties, it could forestall the actual implementation of the feed-in tariff and any other policy aimed at maximizing the efficiency of the grid.

SC: Your book focuses on change. It seems that the culture, the spirit of Aloha, and the fierce independence inherent in Hawaii’s culture should bode well for a self-sustaining economy. But that’s not where it is right now, so how do you foresee the change happening?

ST: There’s this piece of Hawaii’s cultural history that was all about decentralization. The word for it is Ahupua’a. Historically, the mountain islands were managed as if they were cut into a pizza pie–each tribe would control its own slice of the pie, which contained its watershed all the way to the sea. Similarly, back in the days of the sugar cane industry, the state had distributed power. Now it is centralized, and now we’re trying to get back to distributed. So there’s an interesting historical perspective. We’ll have to wait and see how it plays out.

SC: There’s this key moment in your book where your early group, which was called Sustainable Saunders at the time, helped the University of Hawaii system save $150,000 annually by making two relatively simple changes that cost the university nothing. Your book then focused on how people can emulate and replicate that success. You give 30 Axioms for change that are helpful in implementing change in other organizations. Where has that gone from your initial success?

ST: Our group partnered with the Blue Planet Foundation which is working with Energize Hawaii, an organization that teaches ten employees at a variety of companies to do the measurement of comfortable air temp for setting temp controls on HVAC systems. As another example, the DOE is hiring interns through the RISE programs Rewarding Internships for Sustainable Employment to help bring this kind of energy auditing to high schools.

SC: One of the things that really shocked me in your book was your mention of the Hawaii 2050’s Task Force on Sustainability’s Survey. The authors organized that information by plotting Pro-Environment attitudes against Pro-business attitudes along the x-axis. In general, do you feel business viewed as anti-environment and vice versa in reality in the state of Hawaii?

ST: There has been a movement toward a local, green economy in the years since that report was published that shows that this perception is changing and evolving.  Local businesses, and national companies like Johnson Controls which has performance contracts with the UH Community Colleges, have showed repeatedly that sustainably minded businesses are profitable and thriving.

SC: What about the pace of change in Hawaii?

ST: Just like everywhere else, it seems, there are those in the know, and then those who have never even been exposed. Several organizations started at roughly the same time as ours, and there are pockets of knowledge. The major institutions are on board. Time will tell about the pace of adoption in the broader community.

Follow Scott Cooney, author of Build a Green Small Business (McGraw-Hill) on Twitter at, and find more information about Trevenna at

Scott Cooney, Principal of and author of Build a Green Small Business: Profitable Ways to Become an Ecopreneur (McGraw-Hill, November 2008), is also a serial ecopreneur who has started and grown several green businesses and consulted several other green startups. He co-founded the ReDirect Guide, a green business directory, in Salt Lake City, UT. He greened his home in Salt Lake City, including xeriscaping, an organic orchard, extra natural fiber insulation, a 1.8kW solar PV array, on-demand hot water, energy star appliances, and natural paints. He is a vegetarian, an avid cyclist, ultimate frisbee player, and surfer, and currently lives in the sunny Mission district of San Francisco. Scott is working on his second book, a look at microeconomics in the green sector.In June 2010, Scott launched, a sustainability consulting firm dedicated to providing solutions to common business problems by leveraging the power of the triple bottom line. Focused exclusively on small business, GBO's mission is to facilitate the creation and success of small, green businesses.

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