Large-scale wind and solar projects are great ways to get lots of renewable energy on the grid in short order. The size of these projects can help justify the cost of energy storage and grid improvements to smooth out power fluctuations. And, of course, by concentrating renewable generation, wind turbines or PV panels take up a smaller footprint, overall. However, implementing these projects in Hawaii has been problematic, given our small size, isolated island-specific electricity grids and strong community and cultural ties to the land and other natural resources. The wind farms in Kahuku on the North Shore of Oahu typify these challenges to large-scale renewable projects. With the recent PUC approval of an expansion of the existing wind farm, these challenges have come to the fore again. Community members are voicing their frustration at not being consulted or otherwise significantly involved in the development and decision-making process and basically feel like they are bearing the burden of an ever-growing number of huge turbines for the benefit of residents in other communities. A recent Civil Beat article now questions whether Oahu ratepayers, the supposed beneficiaries of this project expansion, are really getting a good deal. HECO has agreed to purchase electricity from the project for 15 cents/kW-hr, almost as much as it pays to generate electricity from oil. This price is also at least 3 times higher than the price being paid by any mainland US utility for wind-generated electricity. The consumer advocate at the PUC admits he cannot adequately investigate the financials behind the negotiated price to determine if it is fair.
These concerns highlight again the need to emphasize a new business model for energy generation, indeed for our entire economic system. This model is based much more around community needs and preferences, prioritizing benefits for the poor and vulnerable, and ensuring good stewardship of local environments and the people whose culture and ways of life are connected to it. For electricity, that model is captured by the concept of distributed (renewables) generation. But Hawaii in general can provide models of community-focused and local-scale economies. Developing, promoting, and implementing these models requires us to focus on our core values and ensure that our personal decisions and social systems work to support those values. And that is where HIPL and other faith-based organizations can play an important role, reminding us of those values, calling out people and institutions that do not uphold those values, and supporting communities engaged in co-creating new models that put those values at the center of their purpose and action.
At the recently ended UN climate change conference in Lima, Peru an international group of Catholic bishops called on all parties to take significant action on climate change by ending the use of fossil fuels. Echoing statements by Pope Francis, the statement blamed global warming and fossil fuel use on an unjust and unsustainable economic system that puts markets and profits above people and the planet. The statement calls “for a new financial and economic order”. From fringe environmentalists, such statements may seem naïve or unnecessarily confrontational; however, the connection of global warming to economic and social injustice highlights the fundamental unsustainability of our current socioeconomic system. Changing the system means more than just recognizing that the current system is threatening our core values as stewards of Creation and caretakers of our neighbor. It also means having the courage and faith to put our values into practice in co-creating this new model. Seems like a job for faith community members and leaders, no?
Hawaiian Electric Utilities has agreed to be bought out by Florida-based NextEra Energy. NextEra is a major (renewable) energy producer, owning many utility-scale wind farms, solar farms, and nuclear power plants. As a large national company, they have the financial capacity to make big investments in similar projects in Hawaii and connect the islands together in a potential statewide grid. All this sounds great, except that it is premised on a dying business model of the monopoly electricity generator & distributor. Utility-scale renewable energy projects in Hawaii have often met with community opposition (e.g. plans to expand the Kahuku wind farms) due to our small size and the strong connections we have to our natural resources. The environmental impacts of such projects, such as an inter-island electricity cable, are risky and potentially serious. Others, such as tapping our state's immense geothermal resources, risk ignoring or degrading the cultural importance of these resources.
All this points toward the need for Hawaii to be a leader in distributed renewable generation and progressive efforts to modernize our grid system to accommodate these diverse and variable sources of power, much like we have accommodated and celebrated the ethnic and cultural diversity of our islands. Perhaps not surprisingly, the most progressive utility in Hawaii is actually Kauai Island Utility Cooperative. They are moving forward on both energy efficiency, integrated renewables, and smart grid technology projects beyond anything HECO, MECO, and HELCO have completed or even proposed in some cases, despite the relatively small size. Indeed, electric cooperatives nationwide are models for promotion of individual- and community-scale projects and integrating a variety of renewable sources into their grids.
NextEra Energy is only interested in renewable generation that it owns and distributes. They have taken advantage of producer tax credits for renewable energy while arguing against tax credits for homeowner photovoltaics and even energy efficiency funding! Their business model, while built on renewable energy generation, is still based on the idea that a monopoly company owns and operates all components of the electricity generation and distribution system. The economies of scale that used to drive this model are rapidly falling apart, but established companies, including HEI and NextEra, have so much invested – physically, financially, and institutionally – in that old model that they fight against the radical changes that are both needed and happening despite their efforts. Investor-owned utilities like HEI and NextEra ultimately answer to their shareholders, who are primarily concerned about generating immediate financial returns rather than serving the community or the environment. Indeed, HEI shareholders have filed a lawsuit challenging the sale to NextEra based on the perceived share price of the company, as if that were the only or most important criterion for the sale.
HIPL will be joining energy and environmental advocates before the Public Utilities Commission as they evaluate this merger. We hope to rally faith communities on behalf of the environment and Hawaii's communities to represent their best interests and promote a new vision for electricity generation, storage, and distribution for Hawaii. Our unique geographic, natural resource, and cultural settings make us perfect for this new model of "power to (and from) the people." We can and should be a leader for the rest of the country and the world.
The Keystone XL pipeline that is proposed to bring tar sands oil from Canada to refineries in the Gulf Coast area is a symbol of the struggle between entrenched fossil fuel interests and those who are fighting for a clean-energy future. A vigorous ally in the battle against this and other oil pipelines are American Indians, who oppose the pipeline not only for its devastating environmental impacts but also because they have sovereignty over lands in the proposed pathways of these pipelines. They have stood up to oppose the pipeline not only on their own lands but have stood with other protesters in Canada and the US. History is basically repeating itself, with tribes being ignored in both the consultation and feedback processes when it comes to big infrastructure projects that cut across sovereign tribal lands. Their opposition to the pipeline is a reminder of this unjust and immoral history of abuse, oppression, and neglect of indigenous people and their lands and resources. It is also a reminder of the history of governments breaking treaties and agreements when they get in the way of "development" or "progress." Their courageous stance against the pipeline is an inspiration to us all and a reminder of another important important moral dimension of global warming and climate change.
In rural areas of developing countries, a lack of big infrastructure –major roadways, power plants and utility lines, municipal water & sewer, among others – has limited the capacity for large-scale and centrally controlled socioeconomic development. However, the answer to this is not obviously or inevitably the introduction of big infrastructure to enable the same kinds of culturally and environmentally destructive development that is the legacy of industrialization, modernization, and globalization of the 20th century. While a Nov 12 featured editorial in the Honolulu Star Advertiser by Robert Bryce makes the case that coal will continue to feed developing countries' demand for cheap energy, support for this claim largely rests on the policies and preferences of governments, not the actual rural and poor communities in these countries. Global Climatescope reports that small-scale (i.e. distributed) renewables are already a competitive, low-cost option for these communities. And because they can be scaled to whatever size is needed without connection to a large electricity grid, they can be deployed much more quickly and cheaply, as well, meeting immediate needs and providing the experience and foundation for upscaling or interconnection to a larger grid if and when one is established. Much of the rural poor depend upon kerosene and diesel for electricity needs, which is more expensive and polluting than electricity from fossil fuel power plants, even. Enabling them to switch to off-grid or even microgrid sources of renewables would better achieve sustainable development goals and improve the health and well-being of those most left behind by general economic growth and made most vulnerable because of the damage such development has wreaked on the environment and our climate, in particular.
Despite official policies or government plans, the evidence suggests developing countries are installing renewables at a faster pace than developed countries, even excluding China's massive investment in photovoltaics and other renewables. So, as with HECO dragging its feet on distributed energy generation in Hawaii, we could be transitioning to renewables much faster than we are if only goverments and energy regulators focused more on the needs of the poor and vulnerable rather than the survival or well-being of big energy interests.
The Honolulu Star Advertiser is reporting that a renewable energy company in Waikoloa is installing a new type of battery storage system using a liquid electrolyte for several off-grid applications. The batteries are made by Imergy Power Systems, and their claims of quick charge and high storage capacity make them useful for customers looking to store enough renewable energy to go off the grid. For one customer, it will be used to develop micro-grid storage to integrate a variety of renewable energy sources. These type of bottom-up and innovative approaches to increasing our capacity to use renewable energy sources do not appear to be central to HECO, MECO, and HELCO's plans. Instead they seem more interested in the old model of large production systems that they can more easily control through their existing energy grid. Community resistance to large wind and solar farms has been well-reported. HECO's report dreams of enabling more distributed generation onto the grid, but rather than focusing on dozens of small and promising approaches, they seem more interested in self-preservation than the real transformation needed for us to fully transition away from fossil fuels.
China-US Climate Deal: Setting a good example
The recently agreement between the US and China on curbing greenhouse gas emissions is being hailed primarily as setting a good example for other nations as we approach the 2015 climate summit in Paris. The US agreed to reduce emissions 26% below 2005 levels, and China agreed to level off emissions by 2030. Getting all the major emitters to agree to work together was a major criticism of promoting global agreements, but the substance of the US-China agreement is certainly not enough to make a real dent in global warming or climate change.
Perhaps as importantly, the US agreed to contribute to a new global fund to support climate change adaptation and mitigation for the world's poorest and most vulnerable countries. It is a sad but necessary effort to help those who will be affected by the US and other developed countries' overwhelming contributions to the accumulation of GHG that are responsible for global warming and its effects on climate, weather, the ocean, and our environment, in general.
Of course, with agreements, it is the commitments to take action with policy, decisions, technology, investment, etc. that matter in meeting targets. Great Britain is not likely to meet its aggressive 2030 targets to reduce GHG emissions intensity (measured as CO2-equivalents per kW-hr of energy produced). Despite some impressive efforts at increasing energy efficiency and use of renewables, and the existence of both an emissions trading scheme (ETS, also known as "cap-and-trade") and a carbon pricing law, it appears the ubiquity of coal-fired power plants will make it difficult for them to meet their goals of reducing GHG emissions 40% below 1990 levels by 2030 and 80% by 2050.
In this season of campaigning for public office, all the focus tends to be on elected officials, but we would like to highlight the ongoing efforts and accomplishments of the State Energy Office in the Department of Business Economic Development and Tourism. Over the past 15-20 years, the office has worked with various state departments and schools to introduce and implement energy performance contracting to reduce energy use through conservation and efficiency upgrades, saving tens of millions of dollars over this time. Buildings and institutions involved in this effort include the University of Hawaii-Hilo, a number of public schools, the Department of Accounting and General Services, and hopefully soon public housing complexes. The energy office has provided technical assistance, developed guidelines for procurement and contracting, and implemented pilot projects. Overall, this has resulted in almost $100 million dedicated to these projects so far with another $70 million planned for future projects.
While the sheer size and scope of these projects is inspirational enough, the more encouraging accomplishment is that state agencies are working together to accomplish this despite the constraining rules surrounding procurement and contracting. Dedicated personnel are spending the time and effort to help the state reach its clean energy goals. We at HIPL applaud the accomplishments of the energy office and all the participating state institutions in these efforts. In this season of politicking and elections, this is something we can all be proud of and point to as an important way government works for the people and the planet.
The traditional view of socioeconomic development in poor regions, countries, and counties is that they need the jobs and electricity that fossil fuel extraction, development, and power generation provide. But that not only discounts the major local and global environmental impacts, it is also largely without basis in reality. Much like stand-alone ATMs and cell phones, distributed renewable energy generation is an affordable and effective way to reach rural and poor communities who don’t have reliable centralized infrastructure. Furthermore, fossil fuel development in poor areas tends to exacerbate economic inequality and benefit a few large landowners, global investors, and skilled workers who generally are brought in or are attracted from other areas. By contrast, local energy efficiency improvement and renewable energy development require lots of labor of varying skill, can support many small- and medium-sized local companies (see Hawaii’s many solar installers and contractors), and does not require major capital-intensive investments that are expensive to install in poor countries and areas that do not have the existing infrastructure, are risky for investors (thus increasing loan interest rates), and are vulnerable to the very effects of climate change that fossil fuel use has caused. There’s lots more on climate change vulnerability and the INequality that fossil fuel development and use causes in this great summary article.
First, Solar City, the company that brought PPAs to the household level, is now offering green energy bonds for individual investors. This helps homeowners not only install PV but also own the PV generating capacity of others. It has worked well in Germany, and Solar City wants to try it in the US.
Second, three big companies are now offering employees the benefit of discount pricing on PV purchases for household use. By combining individual purchases, the companies are able to obtain bulk purchase discounts, similar to community and large organization purchases. It’s just another way that a bit of creativity and smart thinking can make renewable energy more affordable and widespread. There’s no reason really big employers – namely, state and federal governments – could not do the same for their employees. This would be a virtually free and effective way for states to reach their renewable portfolio standards.
Finally, PV plus battery storage is a few years away from becoming affordable enough to allow homeowners to largely disconnect from the traditional electricity grid, at least in Germany, Europe and other places with high electricity rates, like say…Hawaii? This promises to revolutionize energy generation and distribution much like cell phones and the broadband internet have revolutionized telecommunications.