For energy future, bright ideas

KAHULUI – With the rising trend toward rooftop solar photovoltaic panels, stricter government imperatives for sustainability and ever-emerging renewable energy technologies, electric utilities may be facing revolutionary changes in the not-so-distant future, although energy experts are still exploring how to best navigate the shift.

Nearly 250 energy experts, utility representatives and government officials from across the globe have gathered on Maui this week for a three-day conference to discuss a variety of topics related to the uncertain future of electric utilities, not only for the Valley Isle but for the world.

The Maui County Office of Economic Development and Maui Economic Development Board partnered to host the event headlined: “Electric Utilities: The Future Is Not What It Used To Be.” The conference began Wednesday morning at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center.

“We have an abundance of clean, natural resources from which we can make renewable energy. We have sun, wind, waves and even geothermal,” Mayor Alan Arakawa told attendees during Wednesday’s opening remarks. “The problem is that the structure of many of our current municipal energy systems are not poised to handle the abundance of clean energy. . . . We are here to speak seriously about how to evolve from a model that’s been around since Thomas Edison invented the light bulb to something that is more befitting the modern 21st century.”

Arakawa asked attendees for their help and ideas in finding a way to transition to use more renewable energy and less fossil fuel while managing Maui’s tremendous energy costs.

“We have some of the highest energy costs in the nation,” Arakawa said. “We really need your help because the issues are too complex for one island to solve on its own.”

Industry professionals recognized that other parts of the nation and world are looking at Hawaii as a leader in sustainability.

“Hawaiian Electric has just under 300,000 electric customers (on Oahu), and just under 30,000 of those have solar PV. Of that, approximately half of those PV systems were installed last year. These are really rapid growth rates,” said panelist Julia Hamm, president and chief executive officer of the Solar Electric Power Association.

“Obviously that pace of growth is so significant it has impacts on the utility. . . . Many eyes are focused on what’s going to happen here in Hawaii,” Hamm said.

Other panelists agreed that the jump in households feeding solar PV energy into a single electrical grid poses new challenges for the utilities that must be addressed.

“Utilities are in danger of being FedEx-ed like the post office got FedEx-ed, as rooftop solar comes in,” said Hunter Lovins, president of Natural Capitalism Solutions, a Colorado nonprofit that helps senior decision-makers profit from implementing more sustainable business practices.

“You need a new business model. Sorry, monopoly power in today’s world of distributive generation ain’t gonna cut it,” she said.

The loss of ecosystem, the sustainability imperative, volatile energy prices and economic instability are all factors that indicate a need for something new, she said.

The conference continues today at 9 a.m., with optional field tours offered Friday. Registration is required. For more information, send email info@

* Eileen Chao can be reached at