Hawaii is on track to pass legislation this year requiring the state to go 100 percent renewable by 2040.
Earlier this month, committees in the Hawaii House and Senate both unanimously recommended bills that would raise the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) from the current target of 70 percent by 2030 to the ultimate goal of 100 percent by 2040. Hawaii has had an RPS since 2001, and right now the state gets just over 21 percent of its power from renewable sources — a 12 percent increase in just six years.
“Even our utility is saying we can hit 65 percent by 2030, so 100 percent is definitely doable,” Sen. Mike Gabbard (D), sponsor of the Senate bill, SB 2181, and chair of Hawaii’s Energy and Environment Committee, told ThinkProgress. “This is huge for our state’s future. Each year, we spend $3 to $5 billion importing fossil fuels to power our economy. Our electricity bills are roughly three times the national average.”
The Aloha state is 2,500 miles from Los Angeles — about the same distance as New York City to L.A. — and its energy situation bears little resemblance to the mainland’s. Along with Alaska and Texas, it is one of only three states to have its own electricity grid — in fact, it has three of them for three different islands. In 2013, the state had the highest electricity prices in the nation due to its heavy reliance on imports. More than two-thirds of electricity generation on the island archipelago comes from imported oil; in the rest of the U.S., oil accounts for less than one percent of electricity generation.
As recently six years ago, more than 90 percent of Hawaii’s yearly electricity generation came from coal and oil. With renewable technologies rapidly advancing, Hawaii’s abundant solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal sources are moving in quickly as replacements for costly fossil fuels.
“We are on the leading edge of the 21st century renewable energy transformation,” Chris Lee (D), Sponsor of the House version of the bill, HB 623, and chair of the House Energy and Environment Committee, told ThinkProgress. Lee said he’s been pushing for a 100 percent RPS bill for three years, but that this is the first year there’s been overwhelming support to move forward.
In the Hawaiian Senate the Democratic Party holds the largest majority of any state legislative chamber, with 24 out of 25 seats. The Hawaii House is nearby as one-sided, with Democrats holding 44 out of 51 seats. The state’s new Democratic Governor David Ige, who spent 20 years in the state senate, appears to be generally supportive of the ambitious clean energy goals, though he is yet to endorse the recent legislation.
If the new bills become law technical and economic challenges will remain in meeting the target. Lee said that the state’s isolation is a major obstacle and that battery storage will play a key role in “unlocking the potential of all renewables like solar and wind.” In 2013, Hawaii has just over 600 megawatts of installed renewable energy capacity, with wind, biomass and geothermal making up the bulk of the capacity. Wind power accounted for 42 percent of the state’s total utility-scale renewable generation in 2013.
Hawaii’s solar industry has taken off in the last five years, doubling in size every year. According to Lee, utilities have started to push back against this “cheaper alternative” causing numbers to fall dramatically as utilities “began refusing to connect people’s solar panels to the grid, claiming that there were ‘technical problems’ that, as it now turns out, simply did not exist.”
“It’s the same kind of obstructive tactic to prevent competition that ALEC has advocated for years,” said Lee. ALEC, or the American Legislative Exchange Council, is a secretive organization that brings together conservative politicians and major corporate interests. In recent years the group has led a coordinated, state-level, anti-clean energy and anti-EPA crusade waged through model legislation.
At the same time Hawaiian legislators are advancing their home-grown clean energy bills, the state is undergoing a major transition at the utility level. In December, NextEra Energy, a utility company based in Florida, agreed to buy all three of Hawaii’s electric utilities, owned by Hawaiian Electric Industries, for about $6 billion. Until now Hawaii has had three separate power grids on the Big Island, Maui and Oahu. In Hawaii, NextEra is planning to invest heavily in transmission and distribution infrastructure, including a $600 million undersea cable connecting the Oahu and Maui power grids. The utility also plans on replacing some amount of imported oil with imported Liquefied National Gas (LNG).
The verdict is still out on the impact NextEra’s move into Hawaii will have on the state’s clean energy development.
“While some are excited a bout the potential of NextEra’s capacity to invest in grid modernization and other infrastructure necessary to support renewable energy, others are worried about their use of LNG and lack of support for customer-sited distributed generation,” Jeff Mikulina, Executive Director of the Blue Planet Foundation, a Hawaiian NGO that supports clean energy, told ThinkProgress. Mikulina said this uncertainty underscores the need for a “clear policy framework” in which the utility can operate. He considers the 100 percent renewable legislation part of the “societal and political will” needed to achieve these goals in the near future.
“We shouldn’t forget that Hawaii has some of the world’s steadiest wind resources, sun that shines almost every day, waves that pound our shores, and a volcano in our back yard,” he said. “So if anywhere can solve these challenges, Hawaii can.”
Lee is more uncertain than Mikulina regarding NextEra’s move into Hawaii, saying the utility has already opposed all intervention by local groups to ensure the deal is in the public interest.
“There is growing fear that in order to make that money back they will have to eliminate competition from rooftop solar and other renewables and keep our prices artificially high,” said Lee, who sees an unpromising precedent from the company’s action in Florida, where “they have thrown millions into political contributions, repealed the state’s renewable energy goals, and eliminated competition leaving consumers captive to the utilities’ monopoly.”
Lee has proposed a number of other bills this session that would bolster the clear policy framework that Mikulina mentioned. These include HB 1286, which recently passed the House and would amend the state’s Planning Act to ensure the elimination of dependence on imported fuels completely in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He has also proposed a bill that sets a goal of net-zero energy consumption for the state’s university system by 2035.
While Hawaiians can make pretty straightforward economic and energy security arguments for renewable power, cutting back on greenhouse gases and confronting climate change is also a priority for this island state as sea level rise and temperature increases threaten the fragile and unique ecosystem.
In an op-ed in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in early March, former Hawaiian Governor George Ariyoshi advocated for the 100 percent renewable target, saying that “climate reality is everywhere: eroding coastlines, dying coral reefs, droughts, floods, extreme weather.”
According to the 2014 National Climate Assessment, Hawaii is at great risk from the impacts of climate change. Sea level rise will cause saltwater to intrude on the island’s limited freshwater supply. Increased temperatures and changing rainfall patterns will stress native plants and animals. Tourism, an industry that accounts for a quarter of the state’s economy, will suffer — the loss of Waikīkī Beach alone could lead to an annual loss of $2 billion in visitor expenditures according to the report.
“Knowing that the single most important thing we can do about all this is to stop burning fossil fuels, will we commit today to securing hope for a stable climate tomorrow?” Ariyoshi asks in the op-ed.