University of Hawaii

Here’s what it could take to accelerate Hawaii’s transition to 100 percent renewables

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Hawaii continues to make waves with bold commitments to a low-carbon future.

Its latest splash came in early May with a pledge to become carbon neutral by 2045 — the same deadline year as the one guiding the Aloha State’s unmatched 100 percent renewables goal.

There’s still an ocean of uncertainty about how to arrive at either destination, let alone how to map a route for the ambitious drive toward 100 percent clean ground transportation. But the vocal community championing Hawaii’s quest to wean itself off imported fossil fuels believes the state’s business and political leaders will find the resolve to move from the current mix of 25 percent renewables to that all-in aspiration. And it has plenty of suggestions about what it will take.

“Rather than being surprised by or unprepared for the changes to come, we have an opportunity now to take collective action and transition by design, not by default,” wrote Dawn Lippert, CEO of Elemental Excelerator, in an April report detailing Hawaii’s progress. The Honolulu-based innovation accelerator was created 10 years ago by the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative to support technologies or new business models that could accelerate the shift.

The report, released by Elemental Excelerator in collaboration with researchers Rhodium Group and Smart Growth America, outlines at least a half-dozen policy changes or incentive frameworks that Hawaii could embrace to speed things up.

One idea — a regulatory plan that makes it more financially attractive for utilities to invest in distributed generation resources and renewables — is already in progress. That policy directs the Hawaii Public Utility Commission (PUC) to overhaul the ratemaking structure (PDF) so that it rewards utilities for their performance along a number of metrics, including customer affordability and satisfaction, ability to provide access to granular information about energy usage and how quickly the utility can connect renewables and distributed energy resources (including those from third parties).

Right now, there’s little incentive for the Hawaiian Electric Companies to operate more efficiently, to conserve fuel, local clean energy advocates note. It’s still managing to shrink its dependence: according to the utility’s latest sustainability report, it used 8.55 million barrels of oil in 2017, compared with 10.7 million seven years ago. The company’s three operating companies — Hawaiian Electric, Maui Electric and Hawaii Electric Light — use renewables for 27 percent of their power needs, up from 26 percent in 2016 and on pace to hit the company’s 2020 target of 30 percent. But the new rate structure could speed things up.

“This is a critical piece of the puzzle, and we’re excited to see this measure cross the finish line,” said Jeff Mikulina, executive director of Blue Planet Foundation, the 10-year-old Honolulu nonprofit that helped advocate for Hawaii’s 100 percent renewable portfolio standard. “This is the strongest signal yet of the intent to align the market with public interest. … Every other business on earth runs this way.”

It will take at least 18 months for the specifics of this new policy to emerge (the deadline for implementation is 2020). One element to watch closely is how the islands deal with the accelerated retirement of fossil fuels plants that haven’t reached their useful life, noted Mark Glick, faculty and specialist on energy policy and innovation at the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute. (He was formerly administrator of the Hawaii State Energy Office.) “Dealing with that is one of the biggest deterrents moving forward,” he said.