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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Be Green! Aloha!

Earlier this month, the LA Times ran an interesting article about EE/RE in the Hawai‘ian islands. The Merc ran it prominently Tuesday in its Business section, but many people probably missed it since that section is now buried inside local news.

The short version of the story is that Hawai‘i is doing more than most states to promote energy efficiency and renewable energy, it’s bragging about it, and the reporter bought their story hook, line and sinker.

The facts are interesting, but unfortunately the story is so badly written with cliches and misleading statistics that you have to look at it sideways to figure out what’s really going on. Here’s an example:
Although Hawaii's efforts to green itself won't make much of a dent in the world's total carbon emissions, environmentalists hope the state can prove what's possible. The goal is to transform the nation's most energy-dependent state into its cleanest and most sustainable.

"We're adopting policies and technologies here that can serve as a model for the rest of the globe," said Jeff Mikulina, executive director of the Blue Planet Foundation, a Hawaii clean energy advocacy group.

The policies stem from an agreement Hawaii signed with the Department of Energy in 2008. The state pledged to obtain 70% of its total energy needs by 2030 -- 40% from renewable electricity generation and the remaining 30% from energy efficiency. Known as the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative, that agreement has since been strengthened with binding legislation that exceeds California's mandate to get 33% of its electricity from renewables by 2020 (though Hawaii has an extra decade to get there).
In other word, 40% by 2030 is better than 33% by 2020. It seems like a silly distinction, since California has been ratcheting up the goal every decade and it seems unlikely that it will decide to do nothing from 2020-2030. (There’s also the minor matter that either state’s “goal” might fail in its implementation.)

The Times continues:
About 6.5% of Hawaii's electricity came from renewable sources other than hydroelectric power in 2007, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. That's about half what California -- the nation's solar champion and a major player in wind and geothermal energy -- has achieved.

But experts said Hawaii's small size and unique geography could prove advantageous in the race for energy independence. With just 1.3 million inhabitants, its energy consumption is small. The islands have abundant solar, wind, geothermal and wave resources. And Hawaiians are less likely to object to the cost of renewables since they already pay high energy prices.

"It's easier for Hawaii to pull this off than anyone else," said Alison Silverstein, an independent consultant and onetime energy regulator. "They know how bad things can get, and they are highly motivated . . . to take action."
Uh, yeah. There’s nowhere in the US with more favorable conditions for solar power. Plus the cost of substitutes for RE are much higher there than anywhere else, resolving the chronic problem of cheap fossil fuels faced on the mainland. Sounds like a dog-bites-man story to me.

But “race”? What “race”? Is there an X-Prize for most successful state EE/RE policy? Or is this just press hype?

Where is the mention of the failed South Point wind farm, where the tax subsidies rewarded building the turbines but not maintaining them and keeping them running? (By comparison, the contemporaneous Kramer Junction solar plants in California’s Mojave Desert were the largest solar field in the world for almost 2 decades and still remain in active use.)

And the article reflects a profound ignorance about California EE mandates that have led the country for decades, whether it be Title 24 (which dates back to 1978) standards for new construction or the Governator’s latest retrofit plan. It doesn’t sound as sexy as adding 30% to 40% to get a misleading number, but in reality California’s existing conservation has already saved more carbon emissions and fossil fuels than anything Hawai‘i will ever do.

I’m sure there’s something that can be learned from the Hawai‘i experiment: that’s one of the major advantages of the US (and German and Canadian) model of federalism. Heck, I have some money left in my research budget, so perhaps I need to do a field visit to investigate for myself.

However, as with many such stories, there is a tendency to put too much stock in the boasting of the local sources, rather than put the local efforts into a broader context — in this case of US EE/RE policy.

Note to international readers: One of my favorite childhood TV shows was Hawaii Five-O, which offered most Americans their first glimpse of life in the 50th state. The preview of next week’s episode always closed with Jack Lord saying “Be there! Aloha.”

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