I earned a Ph.D. from the University of Hawaii in 2002 and then lived on the U.S. mainland for about a decade. When I returned to Oahu last August, one of the most notable changes (other than significantly worse traffic!) was the welcome sight of photovoltaic (PV) panels across a smattering of rooftops. Not nearly enough, mind you, but enough to make me think that Oahu was moving in the right direction in terms of deriving energy from our abundant clean and renewable sources. And yet our June HECO bill insert reveals how far we still have to go: the vast majority (well over 80%) of our electricity still comes from burning fossil fuels.
That number has unfortunately just gone up, as Oahu’s most newsworthy energy event of the past year just occurred: the burning of the Kahuku Wind Farm battery warehouse on August 1, a total loss. This has forced the indefinite shutdown of the entire facility. In theory, pairing utility-scale renewable energy sites with energy storage (battery or otherwise) could be the ideal way to mitigate the grid challenges posed by intermittent sources. But clearly there is much work to be done to make these technologies safe and reliable.
Governor Abercrombie has kicked around the idea of linking the islands with massive power cables, presumably to help stabilize the grid and enable conveyance of renewable energy from outer islands to power-hungry Oahu. The jury is still out as to the wisdom of this idea, but one thing is certain: such an undertaking would be extremely costly.
Rather than pouring vast sums of public money into that potential boondoggle, why not strive to make Oahu the global model of renewable energy self-sufficiency? Toward that endeavor, Oahu could establish itself as the premier ocean/wave energy research site in the nation, something akin to, but perhaps even more ambitious than, England’s Wave Hub (www.wavehub.co.uk) and the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) in Scotland (www.emec.org.uk).
News of soaring temperatures and drought decimating mainland crops is just the latest in a long series of climatic alarm bells alerting us that we need to fundamentally transform the way we live our lives in order to ensure the planet remains habitable. At present, we are failing as stewards of Mother Earth, and she will punish us if we do not heed her warnings. Weeks turn to months, months turn to years, but change comes slowly, if at all. If HECO cannot move swiftly enough, perhaps it should be de-incorporated and turned into a publicly-owned (not publicly-traded) utility. That just might bring the added benefit of reducing HECO’s staggering rate of 35 cents per kilowatt-hour.
When I think about how the entire Pacific Theater of World War II was carried out over the course of just three and a half years, I wonder why – with our abundant population and resources – we can’t seem to muster the wherewithal to engineer a renewable energy revolution. Whatever it takes, we desperately need to recapture that sense of urgency that our ancestors exemplified during that trying time. We owe it to them, we owe it to ourselves, and most of all, we owe it to our children.