It wasn’t a boxing match. But representatives from Hawaiian Electric Co. and the solar industry presented opposing visions of Hawaii’s clean energy future Monday at a meeting sponsored by the Environmental Caucus of the Democratic Party of Hawaii.
The electric utility that serves Oahu, the Big Island and Maui County, and the state’s burgeoning solar industry, are known for having a tempestuous relationship that often spills over into the media.
The two panelists were Robbie Alm, executive vice president of Hawaiian Electric, and Mark Duda, president of the Hawaii Solar Energy Association and a principal at local solar company, RevoluSun.
“We probably have a lot more in common than what divides us,” said Duda to an audience peppered with members of the community, recognized figures in the energy sector and founders of Kuokoa, the start-up company that wants to take over Hawaiian Electric. The presence of the latter was briefly acknowledged by Alm.
The division that does exist centers around a centralized versus distributed electrical generation system. The former includes energy distributed throughout the utility’s electric grid, while the latter involves power that is used at the site where it is generated – the most common source being photovoltaic panels.
The argument for the latter, which would largely include solar panels, is that it’s the biggest job creator and can zero out one’s electrical bill after a few years. By eliminating electric bills, despite a small fee paid to the utility, it can allow residents and businesses to invest in more areas of the economy, instead of exporting billions of dollars to oil companies.
“The question we are really trying to get at here, is what approach to electric generation most closely approximates what is in the public interest,” said Duda.
But Hawaiian Electric executives have long maintained that the state needs to harness all of its renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar, biofuels, geothermal and ocean thermal energy conversion. This model centers largely on independent power producers, such as First Wind, which sells wind energy to the utility.
But where the two sides meet is in a united belief in the need to move Hawaii off its 90-percent reliance on fossil fuel. While mainland states diversified in the areas of coal and natural gas after the 1970s Middle East oil crisis caused major spikes in oil prices, Hawaii has remained dependent on oil. With the highest electricity rates in the country and subject to the volatility of oil prices, the state has committed to switching to locally-produced renewable energy.
The 2008 Clean Energy Initiative — signed by Hawaiian Electric, the state and the Department of Energy — mandates that 40 percent of the state’s electricity be derived from renewable energy sources by 2030.
“We do think that Hawaii has an opportunity and if we don’t take advantage of it then we should look at our children and feel very ashamed,” said Alm.
The audience was less collegial. With the debate over energy becoming increasingly hostile amongst various factions, some were more direct in their questions, particularly for Alm. Questions ranged from why HECO was spending money on marketing instead of renewable energy; why utility executives had signed a contract with Aina Koa Pono for biofuel energy exponentially higher than the price of geothermal; and why the utility wasn’t accepting any more solar on certain circuits.
But one audience member eased up on Alm, saying, “I know you’re a good guy and I don’t think HECO is evil.”
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