A Green Future for Blue Hawaii, Maybe
By LAWRENCE DOWNES JUNE 9, 2015 4:30 PM
Gov. David Ige of Hawaii on Monday signed a bill to put his state on a path to total energy independence within 30 years. If this is for real, the state would go from being overwhelmingly dependent on imported oil to being a fossil-fuel-free paradise, powered by wind, sun, waves, tides, magma and whatever other energy sources the engineers come up with. Algae, maybe, or sunscreen.
The path is incremental. Electricity utilities would have to expand their renewable portfolios to 30 percent by the end of 2020, 70 percent by 2040 and the full 100 percent by 2045.
Lawmakers and environmentalists were celebrating on Monday. They said Hawaii had put itself in the vanguard of a growing global movement — alongside places like Iceland, Denmark, Tokelau and Tuvalu — that are responding radically and aggressively to the perils of climate change and rising oceans.
The state deserves congratulations, but its plan won’t be easy to implement. The growth of solar power in Hawaii — the mother of all green-energy no-brainers — has been marked by fierce battling on the rooftops involving customers, utility officials, regulators and the solar industry. Many islanders are wary of wind farms, which can be a hard sell in a place where the natural beauty is sublime, cherished and imperiled. Endless rows of windmills may be an aesthetic non-issue, or even an improvement, in a vast mainland desert or cornfield, but in tiny Hawaii, resistance has been intense.
As for geothermal, the issue is complicated not just by the industry’s toxic spills and accidents, but also by native Hawaiian religious traditions. The state’s active volcanoes are believed to be the home of the goddess Pele, and many anti-geothermal activists are not speaking entirely metaphorically when they denounce drilling as rape.
Hawaii deserves credit for trying, but my eyes fell on what seems like an escape hatch in the bill. While the bill calls for punishing utilities that fall short of the green energy requirements, it does not specify any penalties. It also outlines broad reasons the requirements may be waived. Among the many reasons the public utility commission may let a utility off the hook is this:
“Inability to acquire sufficient renewable electrical energy to meet the renewable portfolio standard goals beyond 2030 in a manner that is beneficial to Hawaii’s economy in relation to comparable fossil fuel resources.”
That there is a legislative paraphrase of a well-known Hawaiian pidgin saying, an eloquently condensed version of the serenity prayer, which goes:
“If can, can. If no can, no can.”