ECPA Newsletter

For an Island Economy, Lessons from a Pandemic

Thursday, December 10, 2020

More than 10 million visitors traveled to Hawaii in 2019. By April of this year, with flights and cruises suspended due to the global pandemic, the torrent of tourists had become a trickle—down by 99.5% from the year before. Although tourism is now starting to gradually resume, it is still only about one tenth the levels of last year. The experience of the past few months has driven home the need to become more resilient and self-sufficient, says the head of the Hawaii State Energy Office, and has underscored just how dependent the state’s island economy is on fossil fuels.

Consider all the jet fuel needed to handle the usual volume of tourism traffic. Hawaii’s Chief Energy Officer, Scott Glenn, explained that the one oil refinery now in operation in the state makes a range of products, including diesel, gasoline, and fuel oil, but it is optimized to produce jet fuel. When the bottom fell out of that market, he said, prices began to rise for the refined products used locally—including the low-sulfur fuel oil that some power plants burn to produce electricity.

“What we came to realize is that 10 million tourists were heavily subsidizing the use of our fossil fuels, because they pay for the jet fuel, and that in turn subsidized the making of the other fuel products that we use,” Glenn said.

On top of that, there’s the subsidized cargo. “Those same planes that are burning jet fuel to bring tourists here are also bringing our food, and they’re also bringing the iPhones and the TVs and everything else that comes to the islands,” he said. “And if tourists aren’t flying here, they’re not subsidizing all of those costs to bring those things here.”

Speaking at a webinar during the Caribbean Renewable Energy Forum (CREF) in October, and then in a follow-up interview with the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas (ECPA), Glenn said that the pandemic has reinforced the importance of building a more sustainable economy.

The rise in local energy prices is “pushing people to want to accelerate our renewable energy goals, because we see it as making us more self-sufficient,” he said, adding that residents have also become more aware of the need for the state to grow more of its own food.

“Folks are now focused on how do we accelerate these types of self-sufficiency, sustainability goals, and how do we create good jobs for people to work in those sectors here locally,” Glenn said.

Green Goals

Hawaii has already set a high bar for clean energy. In 2015, it passed a law requiring 100% of the state’s electricity sales to come from renewable resources by 2045. (The renewable portfolio standard, as it’s called, is based on sales rather than generation, so it doesn’t reflect such factors as rooftop solar energy that doesn’t pass through a meter, or wind or solar energy that gets curtailed before it reaches the grid.)

The state appears to be on track to meet one of its interim targets—30% of electricity sales from renewables by the end of 2020—though it may take until February for the Public Utilities Commission to report the official year-end figures, according to Glenn. Those numbers matter, he added, because the law includes financial penalties for the electric utility if it fails to meet the targets. Hawaiian Electric, an investor-owned utility, is the state’s largest supplier of electricity.

In 2019, fossil fuels still accounted for 75.2% of the state’s overall electricity production, 63.2% of that from petroleum and 12% from coal, according to recently released figures from the Hawaii State Energy Office. Renewables accounted for 20.3%, with solar leading the way (12.7%), followed by wind (4.9%) and biomass (2.7%).

Under the leadership of Governor David Ige—an electrical engineer by training who was elected to his second term in 2018—Hawaii has opted not to turn to natural gas as a bridge fuel but rather to keep the focus on renewables, according to Glenn. He described the approach this way: “The end state is ultimately 100% renewable electricity, so let’s start making all of our investment decisions from now focused on that end state.”

One setback came in May 2018, when the eruption of one of the world’s most active volcanoes, Kilauea, forced the shutdown of Puna Geothermal Venture (PGV), a power plant located on Hawaii Island, often called the Big Island. (See previous ECPA story, Harnessing the Power of Volcanoes.)

Last month, Hawaiian Electric announced that PGV had begun supplying electricity to the grid again and would gradually ramp up production over a testing period of a few weeks. Before the eruption, the plant produced 38 megawatts (MW) of electricity, or 15% of the Big Island’s firm generation capacity, the utility said. It noted that PGV had built new, upgraded transmission lines connecting it to the grid.

When the lava knocked out the geothermal plant, officials had feared that the state might miss its target for renewables, Glenn said. However, several projects have gone online since then, including six solar farms with the capacity to power some 40,000 homes.

“We put in so much new generation over the last two years that we’re still hitting the 30% target without the geothermal plant’s contribution,” Glenn said. Throughout the state, he said, there are now more than 30 renewable energy projects planned, awaiting approval, or under construction by Hawaii’s electric utilities and private developers, including 20 solar-plus-storage projects.

Energy a Hot Topic

Not every renewable energy development has been welcomed with open arms. As Glenn and his colleagues at the Hawaii State Energy Office have found, even though renewable energy enjoys almost universal support in the abstract, it can be controversial at the project level. “We’re getting to a point where the easy renewable energy and energy efficiency savings have been achieved, and now we’re moving into the really hard stuff,” Glenn said.

Last year, opponents of a wind farm on the North Shore of Oahu, the state’s most populous island, tried to block delivery of turbine parts. Nearly 200 people ended up getting arrested in the related protests, according to the state’s largest newspaper, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

Deputy Energy Officer Kirsten Baumgart Turner, who participated in the ECPA interview, said the main issue for protesters in that case was the proximity of the windmills to their farm homes and a local school. More broadly, she said, issues related to renewable energy land use become more pressing as the state’s population grows—especially when places that are spiritually or culturally significant are involved, or when the communities that are most affected feel underrepresented.

“People are concerned about preserving the natural resources and the open spaces, and being consulted from the cultural perspective as well,” Turner said. “Those issues then pour over into the land-use issues for renewable energy, and they become lightning rods.”

The Hawaii State Energy Office, whose mission is to promote energy efficiency, renewable energy, and clean transportation, is putting resources into public education and community engagement around the need for a clean energy economy.

Scott Glenn likes to point out that Hawaii has “offshored” many impacts of its energy use; for example, he said, most of the crude oil processed by the local refinery comes from Libya or Russia. “By switching to renewable energy, we’re not only trying to make ourselves more sustainable,” he said, “but we’re embracing our kuleana—that’s our Hawaiian word for responsibility—that we have for our own energy demand.” Ultimately, he said, it’s about “bringing our energy footprint home.”