NIMBYs And Clean Energy

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - June 22, 2011

My Aiea buddy Ned is putting a photo-voltaic system on his house. My Uncle Ben in Salt Lake already has one. So too my Pearl City neighbor Richard. He’s had one for a couple of years now, and tells me he’s planning to add a couple of panels. With all of Hawaii’s sunshine and government tax credits, photovoltaic systems are beginning to decorate roofs across the state - or at least in those neighborhoods where folks can afford them, for they are not cheap.

Other factors contribute to the blossoming of photovoltaics, most particularly the continued rise in the cost of petroleum-based energy. Therein lies Hawaii’s energy soft spot. While Hawaii, at roughly 10 percent, is one of the nation’s leaders in energy produced from renewable sources, a whopping 77 of the state’s energy generation continues to come from petroleum. As anyone who’s filled a gas tank or read an electricity bill over the last four years knows, that is a volatile commodity, the ascending price of which can make paupers of us all - and a villain out of the Hawaiian Electric Company.

Nobody loves a monopoly, particularly one that’s selling energy based on a commodity whose price depends on political conditions in some of the world’s most unstable regions. Consumers don’t like it. Their legislators don’t like it. Nor does their governor.

By 2006, Gov. Linda Lingle was using her bully pulpit to pressure HECO into acting on its professed conviction that it believed in renewable energy. In 2008, the representatives of the state and the utility signed the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative. Its goal: by 2030, 40 percent of HECO’s power generation would come from renewable energy - wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, waste-to-energy, hydro, ocean and biofuels.

It’s not going to be easy, and HECO’s leaders admit as much. Their problems are at least twofold. The first is about location, location, location. The bulk of Hawaii’s population, 900,000-plus, is located on Oahu, but much of its renewable energy generation, both current and potential, is located on the Neighbor Islands, where only 300,000-plus reside. Renewables currently account for 14 percent of Maui County’s energy and 34 percent of Hawaii County’s. But renewables provide only 5 percent of Oahu’s energy. During periods of “peak load” usage, renewable provides 29 percent of Hawaii Island energy, 26 percent of Lanai’s (credit Castle and Cooke’s solar farm for much of that) and 17 percent of Maui’s.

The second problem is the age-old “not in my backyard.” If neighbors want to put solar panels on their roofs, fine. But build a multistory wind turbine that goes “whump, whump, whump” all day and I would probably complain. Build large wind farms on the Waianae Mountain range, as was proposed several years ago, and the agonized cries of folks who would have those turbines in their view plane will drown out the “whump, whump, whump.” Those turbines never made it up the Waianae range.

While a wind turbine project did begin producing power in Kahuku recently, NIMBYism will always be difficult to overcome on Oahu. The Island simply has too many people spread over too little land, thus too many backyards.

But Oahu residents are not alone in their NIMBYism. An organization called Friends of Lanai vehemently opposes Castle and Cooke’s proposed construction of a wind turbine project. A cable paid for by HECO’s Oahu customers would bring much of Lanai’s wind energy to Honolulu.

There are other obstacles in the way of 40 percent renewable energy generation by 2040. Many are technological, just as many are human.

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