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Tina Casey headshot

Follow the Leader: Hawaii Aims for 100 Percent Renewable Energy


If you're looking for the perfect place to park your new Tesla Powerwall battery, Hawaii is it. The solar-friendly state has been working on a laundry list of renewable energy strategies in a coordinated effort to wean itself from fossil fuels. Last week, the state legislature upped the ante by passing a bill that calls for 100 percent renewables by 2045.

That's a pretty ambitious goal given the current state of energy consumption in Hawaii, which still relies on imported petroleum and coal. However, our friends over at Think Progress are pointing to the state's generous solar power net-metering policy, along with a generous slice of geothermal energy, as key factors that put the 100 percent goal within reach.

There several other important elements at play, too.

1. Stand up to the net-metering naysayers

Net metering refers to the ability of a solar owner to sell their solar power back to the local utility, generally in the form of credits. Net metering is a critical element for mass adoption of solar, and all but a few states have established a net-metering policy in some form. However, net metering poses a huge problem for utilities, as it can whittle away at their rate base for infrastructure upgrades and maintenance.

Some utilities have adapted to this potentially disruptive business model less readily than others, and at the behest of industry stakeholders the lobbying organization ALEC has mounted an intensive state-by-state campaign to weaken net-metering policies.

States like Hawaii with strong public support for net metering have been holding off the attacks, but it's going to take a sustained effort to protect -- and improve -- net-metering policies that promote solar ownership.

2. Planning and partnerships

The public support element brings us around to another key reason for Hawaii's success. Net-metering supporters in Hawaii have a powerful advocate at their backs, the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative (HCEI).

HCEI launched in 2008 as a statewide initiative in partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy to coordinate all stakeholders -- citizen solar advocates as well as academic, government and private-sector players -- in a concerted push to wean Hawaii from its fossil fuel dependency.

One recent example of statewide, solar-friendly policymaking engineered by HCEI is a new solar loan program for nonprofit organizations in Hawaii. Nonprofits don't qualify for solar tax credits because they pay no taxes, so the loan program will help bring this sector into the solar fold through no-money-down power purchase agreements.

HCEI was reaffirmed last year with a particular focus on cutting petroleum use in the transportation sector, which accounts for more than half of all the petroleum used in Hawaii.

To accomplish its transportation goals, HCEI look at all petroleum alternatives including natural gas and hydrogen. Under the current state of technology those two fuels are problematic, to say the least, but renewable biogas and sustainable hydrogen options are beginning to emerge.

3. Economic motivation

Hawaii is notorious for its high fossil energy costs, which far exceed the national average. That puts it at a competitive disadvantage, which is one clear motivator for transitioning out of fossil fuels.

Another economy-related factor is Hawaii's dependence on tourism. In order to protect and nurture that sector, statewide economic growth must be decoupled from a growth in fossil fuel consumption, which otherwise bears with it a growing risk to environmental quality and public health, as well as aesthetic impacts that could interfere with tourism goals.

This dynamic is also at work in other states. Upstate New York, for example, has been working out of its long-term economic doldrums by growing its tourism industry in conjunction with agriculture. In particular, the winemaking industry has become a driver in both the agricultural and tourism sectors. Unfortunately, that growth is being threatened by the recent natural gas boom. The impacts include natural gas transportation and storage issues as well as the notorious drilling practice known as fracking. Earlier this year New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo agreed to a statewide fracking ban, but the transportation and storage issues still linger.

4. National security

Just as the risk factor of fossil fuels is unsustainable for Hawaii's tourism sector and general economic well being, the supply factor is unsustainable for the U.S. military. Reducing dependency on fossil fuels at military facilities is a nationwide priority for the Department of Defense. It is particularly urgent in Hawaii, where the supply chain is long and costly -- and where Pearl Harbor and other important U.S. military facilities are located.

That's why a good deal of the renewable energy activity in Hawaii has been driven by Department of Defense dollars, including energy and water conservation as well as solar and biofuel investment, along with a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle initiative.

Hawaii is also the site of the nation's open-access marine energy test bed, where the Navy is partnering with private companies to develop wave energy devices.

5. One problem, many solutions

That brings us to another key factor working in Hawaii's favor: energy diversity. Hawaii's relatively small land mass makes site selection difficult (but not impossible) for utility scale solar and onshore wind turbines. But distributed, small-scale solar is taking off like a rocket, and there may be some room for micro wind turbines.

Hawaii may also get its first utility-scale offshore wind development, and the aforementioned marine energy test bed could also lead to wave energy harvesting.

Add biomass from the state's agriculture sector, along with geothermal resources, and there are many paths that Hawaii can pursue on its way to 100 percent renewable energy.

Trouble in paradise

One obstacle that Hawaii faces on its way to 100 percent renewables is its solar permitting process: Solar applications breeze through one part of the permit process, only to hit a wall when it comes to the grid connection.

Hawaii is far from alone in this regard. A couple of weeks ago, we spoke with Rob Cassetti of Accela, a software company that specializes in modernizing municipal permit processes and civic systems, and he described a similar situation facing a major U.S. city in an otherwise solar-friendly state -- applications were speeding through the building permit end of the process, only to spin their wheels for months, waiting for grid connection approval.

Like a number of other firms, Accela has been turning its attention to the solar permitting process, partly by creating a standard template that smaller cities can use as a jumping-off point.

The Obama administration is also tackling the permit process on a national basis, through the SunShot Initiative. The SunShot goal is to make solar just as cheap and accessible as any other fuel, which includes making a solar permit just as quick and easy to obtain as any other building permit, such as a new furnace installation.

Technological issues can also pose a stumbling block. The last time TriplePundit checked, the Hawaii utility HECO was working towards a solution with the microinverter company Enphase Energy, so stay tuned.

Image credit: Courtesy of Hawaii State Energy Office.

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Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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