Hawaii’s Push For Renewable Energy Could Stall Over Public Opposition

It’s a perennial issue for lawmakers promoting green energy in Hawaii: how to close a loophole in a law designed to wean the state from electricity made from fossil fuel by 2045.

But Hawaii’s largest electric company is increasingly concerned that a cloud may be forming over the state’s efforts to develop a carbon-free energy economy.

The latest measures, introduced this legislative session — a House bill and Senate companion — have broad support from lawmakers and renewable energy advocates. And with good reason. The bills chiefly make technical changes to how the state defines renewable energy used for electricity, something known as the renewable portfolio standard, or RPS.

The bottom line: the new bill tweaks the mandate so 100% renewable means just that, with no wiggle room for Hawaiian Electric to skirt the requirement.

But in testimony opposing the measure, Hawaiian Electric has raised a more fundamental question.

“We see growing issues concerning alignment of key energy, land use, and other policies, especially as communities have voiced concerns about siting of certain renewable energy projects,” the company’s corporate energy planning manager, Chris Lau, said in written testimony.

Hawaiian Electric executives declined to comment for this story.

But Lau’s testimony shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s following Hawaii’s growing protest movement: the utility is concerned residents won’t really want the numerous large-scale solar and wind farms needed to replace the state’s fossil fuel-driven power plants.

Activism is nothing new in Hawaii, but protests of large-scale projects seem to be happening more frequently, as residents increasingly say government officials aren’t heeding their concerns before pushing ahead with major projects. It’s not just projects like the controversial Thirty Meter Telescope proposed for the summit of Mauna Kea and a ball field proposed for a beachside forest in Waimanalo.

Renewable energy projects also have spawned large demonstrations. In Kahuku, more than 160 people were arrested last year after staging protests of AES Corp.’s Na Pua Makani wind farm – a project being developed on state agriculture land despite longstanding opposition by residents. Renewable energy projects on Maui and the Big Island have been hindered by litigation.

And the pushback comes as Hawaiian Electric is really just getting started. The utility has solicited bids from third parties to develop a massive array of projects. On Oahu alone, the company expects 20 to 29 contracts with private developers and a total investment of $2.5 billion to $4 billion, including land costs.

Projects are expected to occupy some 3,000 acres, the equivalent of 29 Aloha Stadiums.

Hawaiian Electric is expected to pick the winning bids in May, with regulatory approval following next year. The question is how many of these projects will come to fruition.

Public Utilities Commission chairman Jay Griffin notes in his testimony on the bills now before the Legislature that the bid solicitation is expected to result in several projects.

“However,” he adds, “there is still significant uncertainty about the extent to which those projects will be selected, come online, and contribute to the state’s RPS achievement.”

Bill Has Widespread Support

Meanwhile, the measure has broad support. For example, more than a dozen representatives signed onto the House bill, including its main sponsor, Rep. Nicole Lowen, as well as House Speaker Scott Saiki and Finance Committee Chair Sylvia Luke.

Numerous groups testified in favor of the bill, among them, environmental organizations like the Sierra Club of Hawaii and Life of the Land, and renewable energy advocates like the Hawaii Solar Energy Association and the Elemental Excelerator, a business incubator for clean energy startups. The Blue Planet Foundation, a renewable energy advocacy organization that helped push through the original bill, also testified for the change.

The measure not only amends the RPS definition; it also speeds up interim targets for 2030 and 2040 to hasten the transition. Hawaiian Electric describes the change as a double blow, one that tightens the legal definition and makes the company move faster.

Other lawmakers are looking at broader issues surrounding Hawaii’s push to renewables. Sen. Glenn Wakai, who chairs the Senate Economic Development, Tourism, and Technology Committee, has introduced a bill requesting the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute to study whether even the current renewable energy goal is feasible.

Wakai said the state has several policy goals that require using land: for housing and food production as well as wind and solar farms. He said it’s important to make sure the state has enough land to achieve its goals. He said the point is to pause and make sure the state’s goals are aligned.

Wakai also expressed concern that NIMBYism will upend the wind and solar farms the state needs.

“If you don’t want it in your backyard, and you don’t want it offshore, then we’re not going to get to 100%,” he said.

Sen. Gil Riviere, whose Oahu district includes the site of the controversial Kahuku wind farm, commended Hawaiian Electric for recognizing it will need community support for its projects. He’s introduced a bill that will require the state Office of Planning to prepare a comprehensive plan on where to locate renewable energy projects.

“Without such a plan, future renewable energy projects will likely face fierce opposition and the clean energy initiative goal itself could be jeopardized,” Riviere’s bill says.


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