Quietly and without much opposition or fanfare, Hawaii in recent weeks has taken huge, historic steps toward a sustainable energy future characterized by an end to decades of costly reliance on fossil fuels.

On Monday, Gov. David Ige signed House Bill 623, which provides for Hawaii to move gradually and consistently over the next 30 years to a new reality in which our electric utilities generate all their power from renewable sources — 100 percent.

Hawaii is the first state to commit to such a goal. And that’s entirely appropriate, given that our state is currently the most dependent on fossil fuels in the country — a dependency that is bleeding us dry.

This will not only mean dramatically higher uses of solar, wind and geothermal power — already rapidly growing components in our mix of energy sources — but the likely emergence of untapped resources, such as wave and tidal energy, hydrogen power and more. In fact, Ige signed two other bills Monday that would facilitate growth of hydrogen use in Hawaii and create a community based renewable energy program.

Representative Chris Lee and Senator Mike Gabbard bump their fists after Governor Ige signed each bill during bill signing ceremony held at the Governors office.  Governor Ige signed 4 bills into law.  8 june 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Rep. Chris Lee and Sen. Mike Gabbard fist-bump after Gov. David Ige signs the bill.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“Hawaii spends roughly $5 billion a year on foreign oil to meet its energy needs,” Ige said in a statement. “Making the transition to renewable, indigenous resources for power generation will allow us to keep more of that money at home, thereby improving our economy, environment and energy security.”

Added state Rep. Chris Lee, chair of the House Energy and Environmental Protection Committee and principal legislative architect of the renewable standards and hydrogen bills: “Renewable energy projects are already producing cheaper power than new fossil fuel projects in Hawaii, and it’s only going to get cheaper as renewable technology advances, unlike fossil fuels, which will only grow more expensive as they become more difficult to extract from a shrinking supply.

“The faster we move toward renewable energy, the faster we can stop exporting billions from our local economy to import expensive fossil fuels.”

HB 623 ensures ambitious but attainable goals for a fast conversion: 30 percent renewable portfolio standards by the end of 2020, 70 percent by 2040 and 100 percent five years after that. The Public Utilities Commission is charged with monitoring the conversion under the new standards, including any impacts on energy prices charged by renewable energy developers, and to report on those annually to the Legislature.

At the same Monday ceremony, Ige signed House Bill 1509, another Chris Lee bill, which requires the University of Hawaii over the next 20 years to become “net zero” with respect to energy use — producing as much energy as it consumes across all of the UH system campuses. The law encourages the university to use resources such as the state’s green infrastructure loan program to cover the costs of conversion, including costs associated with energy in its massive backlog of deferred maintenance projects.

Through these recent efforts and others prior, Hawaii is fast developing a reputation as an innovative national leader on energy policy.

The end result will be lowered energy consumption, reduced taxpayer costs for energy infrastructure and a decreased use of student tuition to pay the electric bill.

Ige’s signing of that new law came on the heels of the UH Board of Regents’ decision late last month to divest its $66 million endowment entirely of fossil fuel holdings. While that measure is largely symbolic, it is a potent one and has earned international attention for the university, as it made UH the nation’s largest higher education institution to take such a step.

Meeting such exceptional and forward-thinking goals as those represented in the new energy laws and the UH decision is no small feat and in many cases will require a participatory, statewide effort. The exceptional leadership shown by Gov. Ige, the UH Board of Regents, Senate Transportation and Energy Committee Vice Chair Mike Gabbard and especially Lee is to be commended, not only for the substance of what they’ve accomplished, but for the no-drama manner in which they’ve created the thoughtful framework for such remarkable change.

Through these recent efforts and others prior, Hawaii is fast developing a reputation as an innovative national leader on energy policy. That ensures that as Hawaii now sets about implementing this collective blueprint for energy change, we will be setting a powerful example for others to follow, both in the United States and throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

“Mau ke Ea o ka ʻĀina i ka Pono,” reads Hawaii’s state motto. “The Life of the Land is Perpetuated in Righteousness.”

These energy policy changes breathe new life into that phrase, life that will serve Hawaii well for generations to come.

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