The First Fossil-Fuel Free Paradise

Hawaii is the most fossil-fuel dependent state in the country. Now it’s on track to be the exact opposite.

Not so long ago, Hawaii’s image as a sweet-smelling tropical paradise was masking a dirty little secret: Of the states most dependent on foreign oil, Hawaii had rocketed to number one. As of 2006, a full 90 percent of its energy came from imported carbon-rich fossil fuels, which had to be delivered in cargo ships. Not surprisingly, this resulted in the highest gas prices in the country, costing state residents some $5 billion annually.

It was clear Hawaii needed to take action. In 2007 its Republican governor, Laura Lingle, enacted legislation committing the state to take its place “among the nation’s leaders in efforts to effect a climate change policy.” In 2015 her successor, Democrat David Ige, took her vision a step farther, signing into law a mandate that Hawaii generate 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2045.

“Hawaii decided to lead by example,” says Mark B. Glick of the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute. “And the lessons we’ve learned show that a comprehensive energy transition is attainable.”

It’s a blueprint that can work for other states, energy experts say. Glick agrees, adding that of the initiatives undertaken by Hawaii, boosting its fleet of electric vehicles has been among the most crucial.


Following the Great Recession, Hawaii channeled $4.5 million in federal stimulus funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act into building electric vehicle charging stations. At the same time, the Hawaii State Energy Office chipped in $2.3 million in the form of rebates to individuals and businesses that bought electric vehicles (EVs for short).

For a state that had not long before depended almost solely on foreign energy, the results were a game-changer: From 2015 to 2016, as sales of gas-powered vehicles in Hawaii dipped 4 percent, the number of EVs jumped by 26 percent. By the end of last year, Hawaii saw more than 5,000 EVs cruising down its roads. The state has also built an infrastructure of hundreds of public charging stations — widely considered the best such network in the nation.

But Hawaii wasn’t done. To become completely powered by renewable sources, the state also had to make changes to its power grid.

In an all-encompassing effort to cut carbon emissions, a state commission last summer approved a plan by three utility companies to transition to 100 percent clean, renewable sources by 2040 — five years ahead of the already-ambitious schedule set by Gov. Ige. The three companies, which provide power to 95 of Hawaii’s population, are on deck to expand the use of wind, biomass, water, geothermal and solar.

Hawaii Gov. David Ige joins the 2017 National Clean Energy Summit via Skype.Photo by Isaac Brekken/Getty Images for National Clean Energy Summit

The utilities’ trajectory has already been dramatic. On the Big Island of Hawaii, for example, 54 percent of electricity generated in 2016 came from renewables, up from 49 percent the year before. It represented a benchmark in the state’s climate policy: For the first time, more than half of the energy consumed on any of Hawaii’s eight islands came from clean sources.

In addition, the state was able to curb its overall electricity consumption by nearly 17 percent between 2008 and 2015.

On a third front, between 2008 and 2015, Hawaii’s electricity consumption dropped nearly 17 percent, the result of a concerted state effort to become more energy efficient. State buildings were retrofitted with more efficient cooling systems, and standard light bulbs were switched to LEDs.

Capitalizing on this momentum, in 2016 Hawaii won the country’s largest ever federal Energy Savings Performance Contract from the Department of Energy. The contract gave the state $158 million to retrofit 12 airports. The refurbishments are expected to cut annual electricity use by 49 percent.


Other states, however, have struggled to copy Hawaii’s success. In 2017, California, a progressive state with 15 times Hawaii’s population, considered a law that would similarly mandate all its energy come from carbon-free sources by 2045. Had it passed, it would have made California the largest economy on the planet to make such a sweeping clean energy commitment, but the bill failed in the face of opposition from public utility companies and union workers (it may be considered again in 2018).

In the face of the current administration’s reticence to push for climate change policies, “states and cities need to do more, not less,” says Fran Pavley, a former state senator who authored a 2006 law that committed California to the most extensive per-capita carbon cuts in the nation — that is, until it was eclipsed by Hawaii in 2015.

Since Hawaii enacted its ambitious law, a few states, including Oregon, Vermont and New York, have passed similar laws to source at least 50 percent of their energy from renewable sources by the 2030s. And dozens of U.S. cities have pledged to do even better. But some of the main tools that Hawaii used to turn away from fossil fuels are being phased out — namely, federal clean-energy subsidies.

Starting in 2009, more than $30 billion in Recovery Act funds went toward an array of clean energy projects. As a result, between 2010 and 2016, the percentage of American power generated by clean renewables doubled from 4 to 8 percent, says Stephen Munro, a policy expert who works for Bloomberg New Energy. If you add in hydroelectric sources, that number jumps to 15 percent.

“Much of that gain is clearly due to Obama-era subsidies,” Munro says.

The clean-energy subsidies Obama implemented, widely credited with lowering the cost of wind energy by two-thirds and increasing solar production tenfold, are scheduled to sunset in the early 2020s unless they’re extended — something the Trump administration has signaled opposition to.

But even if they’re allowed to expire, some climate activists believe that those Obama-era subsidies have already given clean energy enough momentum to overtake fossil fuels. Even in Hawaii, which benefitted greatly from federal money, the state still found ways to incentivize its residents to make the transition by giving EVs free and preferential parking, for example, as well as special access to express lanes.

In other words, what happened in Hawaii won’t stay in Hawaii. That is as long as other states, bolstered by that clean energy momentum, work to foster cooperation among regulators, government, business, activists and consumers — federal money or no.


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