The price of crude oil today is around $55/barrel. Many are tempted to place our long-sought goal of energy conservation and diversification back on the shelf yet again. But does anyone really expect it to last, and isn’t it far better to prevent another crisis rather than react to it?
I just participated in Hawai‘i Energy Challenge 2018, organized by the Hawai‘i Leeward Planning Conference. An outstanding public-private assemblage, including national and local energy experts as well as leaders of Hawaii’s principal utility (Hawaiian Electric/HECO), alternate energy providers, landowners (interested in agriculture for energy) and business and labor sectors (as energy consumers), met for two days to consider, for Hawaii’s energy needs, where are we today, where we’ll be if we do nothing, and where we can be if we work together.
Every great debate faces the initial challenge of getting the facts straight, and few subjects have more factual confusion and denial than our energy future. Matt Simmons, international expert who wrote the best-seller Twilight in the Desert, opened with a compelling recitation of the evidence for “peak oil”, referring to the point at which international petroleum production hits its maximum and, not being a renewable resource, begins its decline.
This is, of course, a crucial point, as, with our world (and Hawai‘i) heavily dependent on petroleum-based energy, worldwide supply declines plus demand increases (e.g., China and India) equal irreversibly accelerating prices. Mr. Simmons’ conclusion is that we’re either at peak oil or, if we’re not, it’s rapidly approaching, and either way the cost of extracting remaining petroleum reserves is rapidly accelerating. His views have been questioned by oil producers, but just this month a report by the International Energy Agency, an organization of the major oil-importing countries, essentially agreed.
Hawai‘i is particularly impacted and exposed by reason of our geographic isolation and lack of fossil fuel-based energy sources, compounded by many factors including our current inability to transmit electricity between islands. Even today, blessed as we are with the best alternate energy resources and potential in our world (solar, wind, ocean, hydro, geothermal and biomass, for starters), we import and use fossil fuels for some 90% of our energy needs and pay the highest energy costs in our country. For each and all segments of our community, from tourism to construction, transportation, small businesses, government employees, social services and beyond, the question of where we’ll be without collective action was a no-brainer for conference participants, and it wasn’t pretty.
How, then, do we forge our own better energy future rather than let another future just happen? Much, of course, depends on our national energy policy, especially in the areas of renewable energy development, energy conservation and greenhouse gas/carbon emissions.
Here at home, we’ve at least begun to create our different future. The renewable portfolio standards on which I worked as a state legislator (requiring an increasing portion of our utilities’ energy production from renewable sources) and our second-in-the-nation carbon emission standards law are two such efforts.
But most of our conference discussions focused on the Hawai‘i Clean Energy Initiative, a joint effort between our state and the U.S. Department of Energy whose ambitious but doable goal is 70% clean energy for Hawai‘i by 2030, with 40% from renewable energy and 30% from enhanced energy conservation. There are many moving parts to this initiative requiring various legislative, regulatory, business and community efforts. Most immediate, however, are proposals for major change to our state energy statutes and regulations to be considered shortly by our legislature and Public Utilities Commission (our state agency regulating utilities including the rates we pay). These proposals arise largely from an October 2018 Energy Agreement among the State, HECO and PUC. Both agreement and subject are complicated and replete with various terms of art like avoided costs, feed-in tariffs, decoupling and interconnectivity. But what it amounts to is establishing a level of longterm stability and predictability in the price of Hawai‘i electricity which accelerates development of renewable energy and its delivery infrastructure and ends up costing us all a lot less than had we done nothing (plus caring for our environment).
In all this, the devil is very much in the details. Much depends on whether our government, utilities and others have really seen the future and feel a sense of urgency in molding it, as I hope and believe is the case. It also must be accompanied with further energy conservation, emission, and renewable R&D initiatives. And we will all be called upon to make some tough short-term choices to achieve inescapable longterm goals.
What is crucial at this point is that the discussion expand rapidly beyond the walls of the State Capitol, PUC and HECO boardroom and into the communities where we live and work. Because, as Dr. Makena Coffman, UH economics professor and co-founder of Kanu Hawai‘i, reminded participants, in the microcosm of our Hawai‘i we not only experience external factors first and acutely, but have better potential than elsewhere to collaborate toward solutions. We all have a stake in our energy future, and, if Hawai‘i Energy Challenge 2008 is any indication, we are ready, willing and able to chart it.