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Renewable energy push paced by rising costs

Hawaii Energy Conference wraps up final day

Solar panels soak up the sun on the University of Hawaii Maui College campus in 2019. While Hawaii is making progress in its journey toward 100 percent renewable energy by 2045, the industry faces continual challenges brought on by the recent pandemic, economic uncertainty, rising inflation and the recent war on Ukraine. The Mau News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Molokai resident Todd Yamashita sets his grocery list according to his electric bill.

“On Molokai, especially with inflation, we expect to pay more for everything, a certain percent more,” Yamashita said. “The hardest part though now, for me and my family, is the electric bill is the highest utility and we have to decide how much food we are going to buy for the month based on our electric bill.”

Yamashita, board president of Ho’ahu Energy Cooperative Molokai, a community-owned-and-managed energy cooperative that is planning to build renewable energy projects for the community, said the island pays about 400 percent the national average for electricity, although usage is among the least per person in the nation.

“We turn off the hot water heater … we take cold showers if we have to. For us on the ground, that’s the shock,” he said Thursday during a panel on “Systemic Shocks and the Changing Pace of Electrification” on the last day of the 9th annual Hawaii Energy Conference, presented virtually by the Maui Economic Development Board.

Over the past two years, Hawaii residents have been watching everyday costs go up amid the COVID-19 pandemic, economic uncertainty, inflation and the Ukraine-Russia war.

In March, Hawaiian Electric forecasted that residential bills for Maui County and Hawaii island would increase about 20 percent due to the war in Ukraine. Oahu customers would see about a 10 percent increase over the next several months.

Gas prices have risen as the U.S. refuses to buy Russian oil and imposes sanctions on the country for its invasion of Ukraine, which some saw as further proof of the need to ease reliance on imported fossil fuels.

Yamashita said that Molokai residents are “resourceful,” and even prior to the recent shocking events, they were already working on building Molokai’s first grid-scale solar-plus-storage renewable energy project.

“It’s a community solar project, so it benefits our community and our people on Molokai,” he said.

Yamashita pointed to the Kauai Island Utility Cooperative as an example to follow. Despite starting its transition to renewable energy in 2008, at a time when prices were also high for equipment due to the Great Recession, the cooperative succeeded in reaching an almost 70 percent renewable energy threshold last year.

Hawaiian Electric had predicted years ago that Molokai could outpace other islands and reach 100 percent renewable energy by 2020. However, there are currently “zero grid-scale renewables on Molokai,” Yamashita said.

As Molokai seeks its own renewable energy sources, Yamashita said it also faces high costs in the current economic climate, though the “shocks” of higher prices felt now were already familiar to Molokai residents 10 years ago.

The pace of electrification and proceeding with renewable energy projects has “got to go fast,” said Yamashita, who felt that “we are not getting there fast enough.”

Bob Isler, vice president of power supply for Hawaiian Electric, said that in addition to moving from fossil fuels to eliminate greenhouse gases and global warming, the company also seeks to get away from the volatility of oil prices.

Even though oil prices are high now, he said they will come back down eventually but added that the overall volatility is hard on the customers.

“It’s been real exciting because we’ve seen what can be done with solar and storage and we’ve seen the prices and they got to a point where, (we could say) hey, long term we can do this and have our cake and eat it too, have stable prices and lower prices,” Isler said.

“Molokai is a very interesting case, that was an area we thought we might be able to do that and it wasn’t turning out that prices would be lower. And that’s why we had to restart there several times.”

Current challenges also include global disruptions that are increasing prices of photovoltaic panels and batteries, Isler said.

“We’ll see if that’s a short-term thing or a long-term thing,” he added.

“Those are questions we are going to have to answer as a community. What drives the decisions? Is it solely cost? Is it cleanliness? Is it less volatility? Lots of people have different thoughts and ideas on what the answers to that should be.”

The rest of the state will be watching Kauai as it draws closer to the 100 percent renewable energy goal.

In April, Kauai Island Utility Cooperative said that for a third straight year it lead the state in its use of renewables, reporting 69.5 percent in its annual filing for 2021.

President and Chief Executive Officer David Bissell said in a news release that KIUC “essentially reached the state’s 2040 renewable benchmark a full 19 years early.”

Under Hawaii law, a benchmark of 70 percent renewables must be reached by 2040.

But Cameron Kruse, engineering and technology manager at KIUC who was on Thursday’s panel with Yamashita and Isler, said that getting the last 30 percent “is going to be a lot more challenging,” as he said they need to find land to build on for the cooperative’s renewable energy generation as well as deal with issues of “reliably dispatching generation to meet the load.”

KIUC’s power generation mix for 2021 included 45 percent solar, 14 percent hydropower and 11 percent biomass. Rooftop solar from residential and commercial members accounted for one-third of all solar generation, the company has said.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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