Status Quo to Status Whoa
Steve Mitnick is President of Lines Up, Inc., Editor-in-Chief of Public Utilities Fortnightly, author of “Lines Down: How We Pay, Use, Value Grid Electricity Amid the Storm,” formerly an expert witness that testified before utility regulatory commissions of six states, the District of Columbia, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and in Canada, and a faculty member at Georgetown University teaching undergraduate microeconomics, macroeconomics and statistics. He rarely takes a break, but he did, after all, spend Thanksgiving in Maui.
Spent Thanksgiving week in Hawaii. Plus a couple of days of the week after. Four of the days with either Hawaiian Electric or the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission. Or both in the case of that sunny Tuesday, spending the morning with the utility and the afternoon with the Commission.
Though the beaches and waterfalls and forests of Maui were stunning, and though the food on all three islands we visited was spectacular, I have to say that our time with the good people of the utility and the regulator was the highlight. Yes, I know. That says it all about me, but hey.
We interviewed nine of the leaders at Hawaiian Electric and eight Commissioners and Staff at the PUC. After sitting in on a proceeding of the Commission, we were fortunate to meet the Consumer Advocate, and after exchanging business cards, were able to interview him over the phone a couple of weeks later. As we did with a member of Hawaii's legislature.
Unquestionably, Hawaii is blazing the trail to a renewable-based electricity supply system. The state wants all electricity supply — all, as in a hundred percent — to be renewable by the year 2045. So Hawaiian Electric, the PUC and literally everybody else involved in the state's electric industry is working toward this unprecedented and challenging goal.
You might be thinking that the hundred percent by 2045 goal is challenging but pshaw, what's the fuss about? It's not going to be that hard. Well, think again. The year 2045 is twenty-five years from now. Yes, that seems like a pretty good interval of time. Then again it's not, if you're creating a new electricity supply system — actually seven of them for the seven not-interconnected islands — a system that doesn't exist anywhere else right now.
And, a hundred percent is a high percentage, granted. Though the electricity systems of one or two of the islands already come within earshot of a hundred percent renewables from time to time. However, consider this problem. By 2045 each island including congested Oahu must reach and sustain a hundred percent renewables, twenty-four-seven, no matter the weather patterns, no matter the ups and downs of demand, like forever after. It's a long time, forever after is.
Then, count the roadblocks in the way toward a hundred percent by 2045. For one thing, onshore wind and solar — which are the dominant kinds of renewables — take up a whole lot of land in order to produce an appreciable amount of electricity. And I do mean a lot of land. Land that's vacant and land that wouldn't set off protracted controversies if proposed for the siting of a wind or solar project. Land with these qualities aren't something the seven islands have in great quantity.
That Commission proceeding we sat in on? It was a pre-hearing conference for a docket concerning community opposition to the development of renewables on nearby land. Hawaii's biggest political issue at the moment? It might be the stubborn opposition to a world-class telescope that would be installed on vacant land that is claimed to be of considerable cultural importance to native peoples.
Indeed, we toured a major geothermal plant on the big island, or at least what was a geothermal plant, until a volcanic eruption two years ago took it out. Until the eruption, the plant supplied a substantial proportion of the island's electricity. And it was a renewable of course. Yet, many in the nearby community — which was also devastated by the eruption - oppose the plant coming back online. That's more than frustrating if you're driving toward a hundred percent renewables by 2045.
Yes, rooftop solar will be a significant contributor to meeting the goal. But in congested Honolulu, in particular, with its tall residential, commercial, and hotel towers, solar panels on the roofs of buildings can be expected to contribute only so much.
On the other hand, Hawaii has distinct advantages that make this journey to a hundred percent by 2045 less torturous. There's Hawaii's extremely high electric rates, which are a natural consequence of the electricity system's heavy dependence on imported oil. In the transformation of the system from the oil-based status quo to the renewable-based status whoa, the considerable cost of the transformation might not actually raise rates in real terms; remarkably it might even lower them. Transforming from oil dependence will also reduce the concentration of local air pollutants.
Continuing public support - which will be absolutely essential in pulling this off — will come as well from Hawaiians' realization that the seven islands are especially vulnerable to climate change. When we were out there, it was so interesting and important to learn that on these islands lives the most geographically-remote major population on the globe. In the event of a catastrophic typhoon, so much of its critical infrastructure — like two of Oahu's three airports and its shipping port — is situated right at the shore and virtually at sea level. The status quo is therefore a risky state for the Aloha State to stick with. And that's before we recall that U.S. national security depends to a great extent on the positioning of our armed forces based there.
The Hawaiians we met are committed to a hundred percent renewables by 2045 and at the same time realize they need to innovate and invest big time to get there — or as close as is practicable — while maintaining the reliability and resilience of their electricity supply. They know the eyes of the world are on them, ours anyway, to see how it goes, to learn from their victories and setbacks along the way.