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What will 100% renewable energy look like on Maui?

VIEWPOINT

What would Maui look like if it was powered by 100 percent renewable energy?

Would our island landscape feature rows of solar panels with batteries? More windmills capturing our breezy trades? Perhaps fleets of electric vehicles on our roads or retirement of current generation facilities?

While we may share the common goal of a sustainable future with fewer carbon emissions, how we will make it happen is up for discussion.

That’s why Maui Electric, along with partners Maui Tomorrow and Sierra Club, are hosting the upcoming community forum, “100% Renewable Energy: What Will Maui Look Like?”

We invite everyone to join this important conversation on Wednesday, June 26, at the J. Walter Cameron Center Auditorium (95 Mahalani St., Wailuku). Light refreshments will be served at 5:30 p.m. with discussion to follow from 6 to 7:30.

This conversation is especially critical now. We’ve come a long way together, but as we enter the 2020s, clean energy milestones will be more challenging to achieve.

As of 2018, private rooftop and utility-scale solar, biofuel and wind resources boosted the amount of renewable energy used to generate electricity in Maui County to 38 percent. We’re exceeding the state’s goal of 30 percent renewables by 2020.

We reached another milestone when for a few minutes on a sunny, breezy morning on Maui in April last year, 80 percent of the island’s electricity came from the sun and the wind.

In March, the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) approved Maui’s first and currently largest utility-scale solar plus battery project. Slated to start construction in 2020 and to be online by 2022, the AES Kuihelani Solar project will consist of 200,000 solar panels built on approximately 500 acres of former sugar cane fields off Kuihelani Highway in Central Maui.

The project’s developers have said it is expected to offset nearly 84 million gallons of imported fuel over the life of its 25-year contract with Maui Electric. This is the lowest-cost renewable energy resource we’ve secured to date for Maui with no mark-up to customers or profit to the utility.

Projects like this will be more common on Maui as we work on our most ambitious procurement of renewable energy.

Later this summer, Maui Electric — along with Hawai’i Electric Light on Hawaii Island and Hawaiian Electric on Oahu — will launch the biggest renewable energy procurement effort in its history.

The effort is aimed at replacing the firm generation currently provided by our aging Kahului Power Plant.

While these projects will have the potential to reduce Maui’s fossil fuel use by about 20 million gallons, they will bring significant changes to our island landscape. Assuming they are solar-plus-storage projects, they will occupy about 700 acres, the equivalent size of 14 War Memorial Complexes or 530 football fields.

We recognize this is a considerable footprint. What we gain is a significant reduction in carbon emissions and stable, long-term prices in place of the volatile prices of fossil fuels.

Integrating this surge of renewable energy will require upgrades to our electric grid. Using new digital tools, we’re already working to transform the grid to expand the amount of private rooftop solar online and make use of rapidly evolving technology, such as advanced meters and energy storage.

It is a huge endeavor. To be successful, our company, along with regulators and government agencies, must collaborate and be willing to prioritize renewable energy developments while balancing unique community and cultural needs.

Project developers and landowners will have to listen to the concerns of the communities where they’re proposing to build. Residents, businesses and community groups need to bring open minds and a collaborative spirit to discussions about projects that may touch their neighborhoods.

We’ll have different ideas on how to achieve our clean energy future. Let’s start the discussion on June 26.

* Sharon Suzuki is president, Maui County and Hawai’i Island Utilities.