While we appreciate that scholars such as Dr. Lee Endress and Professor James Roumasset are opining on energy, their recent opinion piece begins with a flawed premise (“What Is Really Being Sustained by 100 Percent Renewable Energy?”) Naturally, this leads the authors to reach fundamentally flawed conclusions. Superficially, their familiar themes seem to support the fossil fuel status quo. But closer scrutiny reveals deep problems with their arguments.

The respected authors start by attacking Rep. Chris Lee’s commentary on the historic 100 percent renewable energy law by asserting that “[t]he claim that pursuit of renewable energy saved Hawaii $67 million in 2012, or $150 per household, is presented without justification or citation of a source.”

Those who pay attention to the details of energy policy, legislation, and regulation in Hawaii know that Chair Lee probably got this figure from the Report to the 2014 Legislature on the Public Utilities Commission Review of Hawaii’s Renewable Portfolio Standard (Table 1, p. 17). The PUC Report calculated direct renewable savings by comparing the average price of non-utility renewable generation to more expensive utility fossil fuel generation.

Blue Planet solar photo

Solar panels have become a popular way to generate electricity for many in Hawaii.

Blue Planet Foundation

If anything, the PUC’s methodology is likely to have understated the true value of renewables, because it did not account for savings from customer-sited renewable generation and did not include any indirect benefits (such as the hedge value of new fixed-price renewable contracts in comparison to fossil fuel volatility).

Apparently unaware that the scale of direct savings and other savings easily topped $67 million in 2012, the balance of the authors’ discussion is premised on the (incorrect) assumption that “[t]he [$67M] figure appears to be based on the erroneous notion that reducing imports and ‘keeping the money at home’ enhances economic welfare in society.”

This premise leads them to conclude (again incorrectly) that “Hawaii is setting a bad example of how to raise the cost of living consumer-taxpayers face.” It is hard to see how using how using less expensive renewable generation instead of more expensive utility fossil fuel generation has raised the cost of living.

The piece has other serious problems. The authors assert that “a ‘commitment’ to 100 percent renewability signals a lack of interest in natural gas, even as a bridge fuel.” The 100 percent target is 30 years away. Should a “bridge” fuel last longer than three decades?

Nonetheless, the authors are absolutely correct about one thing: as a state that felt the bite of imported fuel costs tripling between 2009 and 2012 (DBEDT Monthly Energy Trends, cost of fuel oil /kWh), Hawaii has a justified “lack of interest” in making the same mistake twice with another long-term fossil fuel gamble.

More troubling, the authors appear to defend a disinterest in reducing Hawaii emissions by noting that we emit only a fraction of the globe’s carbon. This de minimis justification fails immediately when one considers emissions on a per capita basis. We are each far more responsible for the dramatic buildup of carbon dioxide than our counterpart citizens in China or other developing nations. Everyone from Hillel the Elder (If not now, when?), to Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama (If not us, who?), to Michael Jackson (I’m starting with the man in the mirror) would agree that we should not look to others to solve the world’s problems.

Most troubling, the authors cite Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom to claim that leading by example is a “sucker play.” While we are sure that the authors mean well, it is hard to imagine a more shortsighted approach to law and policy. We teach our children to do what is just and equitable, not what is easiest, cheapest, or most convenient in the short term. We are delighted if they lead by example, no matter what their peers are doing at the time. We should strive for the same approach to energy and climate policy.

Professor Ostrom agreed with us. In her last article before her death (“Green from the Grassroots”), she wrote about the importance of grassroots solutions to climate change at every scale:

“Decades of research demonstrate that a variety of overlapping policies at city, subnational, national, and international levels is more likely to succeed than are single, overarching binding agreements.” She encouraged local leaders to act to “protect their citizens and economies” in the “absence of effective national and international legislation to curb greenhouse gases.” Another set of Nobel winners – the scientists who make up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change–also advise us to take local action to reduce carbon emissions (e.g. IPCC Summary for Policymakers 2014, SPM 4.4).

Professor Ostrom didn’t say that local leadership on global climate change is for “suckers.” She implored immediate action:

“We have a decade to act before the economic cost of current viable solutions becomes too high. Without action, we risk catastrophic and perhaps irreversible changes to our life-support system. Our primary goal must be to take planetary responsibility for this risk, rather than placing in jeopardy the welfare of future generations.”

By making Hawaii the first state in the nation with a goal of 100 percent renewable energy, Chair Lee and other leaders in Hawaii have acted on the advice of these Nobel winners. Hawaii’s new law is already starting to change the global conversation about what’s possible. In 2045 or sooner, we hope to meet Dr. Endress and Professor Roumasset in the State Capitol rotunda to toast Chair Lee and his colleagues for their foresight.

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