Hawaii’s Ambassador of Energy could be a fitting title for Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz.

This week Schatz was in Washington D.C. meeting with officials from the U.S. Department of Energy where they went over “point by point every aspect of the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative” – the state’s blueprint for transitioning to renewable energy.

And in April, he is off to Japan and Korea where he will meet with government officials on energy issues.

The state’s second in command has made Hawaii’s clean energy policy his top focus. Fresh out of a meeting with the head of the state energy office last week, Schatz sat down with Civil Beat to discuss his new leadership role in the state’s push toward renewable energy.

“Strategy is execution,” he said when asked what the plan was. The quote’s from Jack Welch, but Schatz was quick with a disclaimer that he shared no political affinity with the politically conservative, former chief of General Electric.

In January, Gov. Neil Abercrombie announced during his State of the State address that he was assigning Schatz to oversee the state’s energy initiative.

“It is time for us to work together to put willpower to our resources and make this a reality for the state,” Abercrombie said in the speech. “That is why I have assigned Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz to coordinate and support our energy priorities.”

While it remains to be seen what impact the lieutenant governor will have on the pace or direction of Hawaii’s push toward renewable energy, Schatz appears to have taken on the increasingly contentious issue with the same vigor with which he approached the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation — his last major assignment from the governor. APEC was generally viewed as a success.

The administration’s emphasis on the state’s energy policy is being welcomed by key players in the energy arena.

“We need all the soldiers we can get,” said Sen. Mike Gabbard, chair of the Senate Energy and Environment Committee. He said that Schatz would bring a greater focus to energy issues at the highest levels of government.

A Slow Start?

Energy policy was a big part of Abercrombie’s campaign for governor and it’s featured prominently in the “New Day Plan” — the governor’s major policy document for Hawaii. But Abercrombie has been criticized by some in the energy sector who feel that he hasn’t delivered on his promises to make clean energy a top priority for the state since taking office. This is in contrast to former Gov. Linda Lingle, whose administration was responsible for the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative, which mandates that the state’s electricity be powered by 40 percent renewable energy by 2030.

“I don’t want to say we hit pause or anything, but there definitely was a little lag. Hopefully there will now be a new, invigorated attention,” said Jeff Mikulina, executive director of Blue Planet Foundation, which works to reduce fossil fuel use.

Limited Powers, But Substantial Influence

To some degree, Schatz’s ability to make things happen is limited. For instance, he doesn’t control what contracts are signed with renewable energy companies or what sources, from geothermal to wind energy, the state taps for its electricity needs. That comes from private negotiations between the electric utilities and energy companies, which are overseen by the state Public Utilities Commission.

“He really has no power,” said Mikulina. “But he has the ear of the governor and he has that title that people respect.”

Mikulina said he sees Schatz’s main strength as his ability to facilitate discussions among the key groups in the energy sector which at times work independently.

“I think what Brian can do really well, and what is needed is trans-agency, trans-boundary discussions,” he said. “So when he sees the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism working on one issue and the PUC and consumer advocate another, and the utility is doing something else, he has the ability to pull everyone together and say, ‘What the hell is going on?’”

Administrative Agenda

Critics, such as Henry Curtis of Life of the Land, an environmental advocacy group, contend that there is no clear roadmap for the state’s energy policy, and that means Hawaiian Electric Co. has been left in charge. As a result, Curtis and others believe, the state hasn’t made good decisions about the best renewable energy sources for the state — whether it’s geothermal on the Big Island or a major investment in ocean energy or expanding rooftop solar systems.

But it’s unlikely that Schatz will be taking sides when it comes to that debate.

He reiterated what HECO and the state energy office have been saying for months — that the state needs to look to all its sources. And he stressed the fluidity of the clean energy market and the challenges involved in trying to have a detailed plan.

“We can’t know in advance what is financeable, what is feasible from a permitting standpoint. We can’t pre-vet all the technical aspects of a project,” said Schatz. “And most importantly, the Public Utilities Commission has the authority to approve or disapprove of projects. So our role in is in setting up a statutory, a regulatory and policy framework to allow clean energy to occur.”

To that end, Schatz says he’s working with the PUC to streamline operations. And he says the state is working to identify the best locations for tapping geothermal resources on the Big Island and Maui to expedite the work of developers.

But this doesn’t mean that the governor’s office doesn’t have its own agenda.

The Big Wind project, which would build large-scale wind farms on Molokai and Lanai, still has Abercrombie’s support in spite of heated opposition against the projects on those islands. Recently, at the governor’s request, lawmakers considering an undersea cable bill changed the language that would have let Lanai and Molokai opt out of having a cable to those islands.

“We still think it’s worth pursuing,” said Schatz.

And the push for undersea cables capable of transmitting energy between islands is still a top priority.

“If we don’t have an interisland grid, barring a miraculous — and I mean miraculous — technological breakthrough, then we are going to fast approach our real limits in terms of clean energy. And we will have hit 16 to 20 percent clean energy, and it will just stop in its tracks. Without the cable, the clean energy initiative is really a pie in the sky idea.”

You can watch video clips of the interview below:

There’s been stiff resistance against a proposed wind farm on Molokai that’s part of the Big Wind project, but Schatz says the administration still thinks it’s a viable option. But “we’re not going to bang our heads against the wall either,” he said.

Schatz discusses what the state is doing to encourage geothermal development.

The cost associated with wind farms in Hawaii has gone up substantially since 2008, when First Wind, the state’s main wind energy company, negotiated a rate of 8 cents per kilowatt hour. Since then, Hawaiian Electric Co. has agreed to purchase wind energy from the company at three different sites at rates of 20 cents to 23 cents per kilowatt hour. Schatz responds to whether the prices seem fair for consumers.

Hawaiian Electric Co., a publicly traded company, has weathered criticism that its business model needs to change in order for it to move toward more renewable energy. Schatz says there will come a time when the state will have to “have a real conversation about what is the model for our electric utility.” But he says right now isn’t it.

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