Energy reform a top goal

The gubernatorial candidates lay out their plans to boost state's use of alternative fuel
Star Advertiser - Oct 10, 2010
Derrick DePledge

Former U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie and Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona want to keep Hawaii on course to significantly reduce dependence on imported fossil fuel, but the candidates for governor differ on the best policy and regulatory framework to develop alternative energy.
Abercrombie, the Democrat, would create a new independent Hawaii Energy Authority that would take policy oversight away from the state's Energy Office and regulatory power from the state's Public Utilities Commission to guide alternative-energy projects. He said a new authority, which could take at least one to two years to establish, would be more nimble and would review projects faster than the backlogged PUC.
Aiona, the Republican, would stick with the state's existing policy and regulatory structure and focus on executing the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative, the commitment by the state to have 70 percent clean energy by 2030 -- 40 percent from renewable sources and 30 percent from energy efficiency.
Aiona has also set an aggressive short-term goal of reducing reliance on imported fossil fuel by half by 2018.
Hawaii relies on about 50 million barrels of imported oil each year at a cost of $4 billion to $6 billion. While policymakers have talked about alternative energy for a generation, fears two years ago that oil would reach $150 a barrel helped lead to a commitment on a timetable from the state and the utilities. Gov. Linda Lingle and state lawmakers put renewable portfolio standards into law, requiring electric utilities to hit the 40 percent renewable mark by 2030, and urged the PUC to design energy-efficiency portfolio standards to help reach the 30 percent conservation mark by 2030.
Abercrombie said he is committed to the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative but says a new energy authority is necessary. The new energy authority, according to his campaign, would have the sole mission of achieving energy independence. It would be the lead government agency for conducting technical studies, developing reliability standards for the power grid, deciding which independent energy providers are allowed to connect with the grid and in what order, and overseeing energy efficiency.
The PUC -- where the backlog on some dockets can extend a year or more -- would be a traditional rate-setting agency.
"The question is can we move it along, can we amplify it, can we supplement it and complement it as we go along?" Abercrombie said of the state's clean-energy goals.
He said that even if it takes two years to establish the new energy authority, "that's two years faster than a lot of things are moving right at the moment."
"And, again, that's not because there's villains in the PUC. It has to do with the multiplicity of responsibilities that they have and the model I think that essentially represents a 19th- and 20th-century approach to energy distribution that just simply doesn't any longer apply, particularly if you want to move toward alternative energy with the idea of becoming as independent as you can."
Aiona said a new energy authority would be the wrong approach and could potentially delay progress on the state's clean-energy goals. "It's just bad policy," he said. "It's a bad move."
Aiona said establishing a new energy authority would cause unnecessary uncertainty on both the policy and regulatory front. "I believe that the groundwork, in these past two years, has been laid and we're now ready to put these projects in the ground," he said. "We're ready to put steel in the ground. We're right there."
Aiona's target of reducing reliance on imported fossil fuel by half by 2018 depends largely on the state's ability to complete a $1 billion undersea cable to transmit wind power from Lanai and Molokai to Oahu. An environmental impact statement is being prepared for the project.
"I know it's doable. I know we can," he said.
Utility executives, environmentalists and state lawmakers are optimistic that the state can achieve its clean-energy goals but believe it will take a governor committed to execution. Conflicts already exist between those who want more emphasis on incentives to get consumers to convert to solar and other alternative-energy systems and supporters of large-scale projects like the undersea cable. Native Hawaiians and conservationists have sent alarms about the potential environmental and cultural impacts of proposed wind farms. Resentment may grow if neighbor island and rural residents feel they have to live near clean-energy projects that largely power urban Oahu.
Robbie Alm, executive vice president of Hawaiian Electric Co., said Hawaii has the potential resources in solar, wind, biomass, biofuel, geothermal and ocean power. He said projections of oil at $150 a barrel -- it was about $82 on Friday -- and the resulting damage to the state's economy is "a lesson not lost."
"There's a certain portion of folks in our community that believe that a thousand small solutions mean you never have to do any of these big projects," Alm said. "The challenge, from our point of view, is we believe you have to do both. We keep saying the operative word has to be 'and,' not 'or.'"
Alm said that however state government wants to organize the policy and regulatory framework, "you've got to point it solely in the direction of clean energy and then make sure that in all the competing priorities that the new governor is going to have -- or whatever things they want to accomplish -- that they keep clean energy at the front.
"As long as it stays at the front and they drive it from the fifth floor (of the state Capitol) and they never let it become sort of just one of another set of issues, then I think it can happen. But you're going to have political opposition to all the pieces of it even while you have general statewide agreement on the overall goals of clean energy."
Robert Harris, director of the Sierra Club Hawaii chapter, said the state's clean-energy goals are ambitious and have created a lot of attention about the need to develop renewable sources.
"But the details of how we get there still need formulation. We still need to get it really more aggressively laid out," he said, particularly the energy efficiency component.
Harris said a new energy authority could be positive if it "elevates it to one central, accountable body and that's their sole task, and you put it at a departmental level, much like the Hawaii Tourism Authority, and say, 'This is your mission. This is what you have to accomplish.'"
He said a new energy authority might help ensure that clean energy remains a priority in future years under governors who may not have the same level of interest. "It helps make sure that this really gets set as one of the state's top priorities and keeps it there," he said.
State Sen. Mike Gabbard, (D, Kapolei-Makakilo-Waikele), chairman of the Senate Energy and Environment Committee, said he thinks the state's energy goals are achievable and that the state could be a model for the nation.
"There's a long way to go, obviously, but I'm for pushing the envelope," he said.
A new energy authority would require legislative approval. Gabbard said he would like to see more details before taking a position.
State Rep. Hermina Morita (D, Hanalei-Anahola-Kapaa), chairwoman of the House Energy and Environmental Protection Committee, said the state needs to create some certainty in the pathway to clean energy to earn investor confidence in new projects. She said she is not sure whether establishing a new energy authority is wise at this time.
Morita said the state should provide adequate staffing and resources to the Energy Office and the PUC. "That's what we have to concentrate on right now," she said.