When the sun sets on Molokai, hundreds of homes go dark.

For many of the island’s nearly 7,300 residents — 62% of which are Native Hawaiian — keeping the lights off isn’t just an environmentally sound choice, but a necessity since they have among the highest electricity rates in the state. That’s compounded by the fact that Hawaii ranks first for the most expensive electricity in the nation.

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Longtime community activist Walter Ritte says conserving electricity is a foundational lesson children learn at a young age in Molokai.

“You have a mindset,” he said. “This thing that’s creating electricity is not some magic.”

Molokai residents use 35% less electricity than the state average but pay nearly 7 cents more per kilowatt-hour compared to Oahu residents — forcing many families to choose between using power at night or feeding their children.

Many Molokai residents live without a connection to the grid, conserving electricity throughout the day and using generators or small tanks of propane to power essential appliances at night. However, reliance on gas has its limitations and does not move the state toward its 2045 zero-emissions goal.

Hawaiian Electric Co.’s Locational Value Map shows large electricity deserts throughout Molokai — some of which are on Hawaiian homestead lands — that have no capacity for rooftop solar to connect to the grid. In the 2020 Department of Hawaiian Home Lands Report, Molokai had 393 residential and 419 agricultural lots.

Because utility poles do not reach some Hawaiian homestead lands, residents across the island are forced to pay for the installation of their own pole, which community members said can run from $10,000 to $40,000.

Molokai resident Walter Ritte.
Molokai resident Walter Ritte laughed telling of a time he traveled to Oahu for a conference and was amazed by a restroom that had an automatic door, toilet, sink and dryer, all electric. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

While experts say it’s difficult to know exactly how many people live without electricity from Hawaiian Electric, a 2021 Sustainable Molokai community survey of nearly 100 residents found that about 68% get electricity from the utility, 25% use solar that connects to the utility and about 7% of the population lives “off the grid,” finding other solutions like gas generators to produce power.

Hawaiian Electric services 3,200 residential customers on the island but noted that it has no way of knowing if the 4,000 non-customers are living in a home that’s being serviced by another source or living without any connection.

Maui County Council Vice Chair Keani Rawlins-Fernandez criticized Hawaiian Electric Co. for using its monopoly status to profit from vulnerable community members.

“The inequity of Molokai people paying like four times more than the national average … it’s an injustice,” she said.

Looking ahead, Rawlins-Fernandez said it’s time for a new business model focusing on smaller community-driven businesses, pointing toward a new energy co-op that’s paving the way for that future.

“If you can keep a refrigerator running 24/7, charge a laptop and have lights, that’s a game-changer — that’s everything.” — Hoahu Co-op President Todd Yamashita

Early this year, Hoahu Energy Co-op announced that it’s vying for the chance to build the next 2.5 MW solar project on Molokai — enough to power about 20% of the community’s electric needs — and hopes to become the first community-owned energy co-op on the island.

Hoahu Co-op President Todd Yamashita said this is the first step to decrease their reliance on the utility, explaining that they’re trying to prevent the creation of projects like the solar panels in Waianae and the wind farm in Kahuku that alienated neighbors while creating energy for people outside of those communities.

“This co-op isn’t just for people that become subscribers,” he said. “That’s the beauty of home grown. We’re creating a system so that we pull everyone along with us.”

Hoahu will also spearhead workforce training on design, installation and maintenance, using donated solar panels from Rising Sun Solar to help install solar directly onto the properties of people living off the grid. The co-op received two grants totaling about $274,000 that Rawlins-Fernandez helped secure from Maui County for renewable energy workforce development.

Hawaii was the first state to set a goal of generating 100% of its electricity from renewable energy sources by 2045, but it remains far from that goal with over 60% of its energy currently relying on petroleum sources. Compared to the national average cost of residential electricity of $0.13 per kWh, Hawaii has the highest prices in the nation, nearly triple that at $0.33.

“It’s time to invest in our own energy needs,” Rawlins-Fernandez said.

Yamashita says that’s exactly his plan. His grandfather was the first person to install utility polls on Molokai and the first Japanese-American president of a power plant in the U.S. Yamashita's father took over Molokai Electric after finishing his engineering degree, but sold it to HECO in 1989.

Yamashita sees the co-op as his opportunity to bring energy ownership back to the people on Molokai.

“If you can keep a refrigerator running 24/7, charge a laptop and have lights, that’s a game-changer — that’s everything," he said.

On Aug. 31, HECO submitted its final draft of a request for proposals to the state's Public Utilities Commission, a necessary step before soliciting bids for a community-based renewable energy solar "mid-tier" 2.5 MW project on Molokai.

Hoahu Energy is so far the only entity that's announced an intent to bid, but Yamashita said the co-op still has a steep hill ahead before reaching its goal. In a response letter to the RFP, the co-op accused HECO of including exorbitant interconnection fees, estimated at an additional 20% of the total project cost, and inserting conditions that would allow the utility to find "affiliates" to bid against them.

Molokai resident Todd Yamashita shows his off grid solar electric system on the land he is tending next to his residence. Yamashita also shared his advocacy about sustainble electricity and also talked about his father and grandfathers' connection to the original Molokai Electric company and grid.
Molokai resident Todd Yamashita shows his off-grid solar electric system on the land he is tending next to his residence. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Rebecca Dayhuff Matsushima, Hawaiian Electric's director of the renewable acquisition division, dismissed the accusations and said HECO's goal is to create a sustainable energy future on Molokai based on community needs. She noted that they conducted reviews of the project site in Palaau to make sure it was outside flood zones and made changes to its initial RFP based on conversations with community members.

“We've taken those (community) comments and included them as exhibits to the RFP so that any developers that are interested in bidding on Molokai know what the community feedback is," Dayhuff Matsushima said. "That was, you know, something that we did for the first time ever on Molokai because we know how important it was for the community — for their voices — to be heard."

She said that HECO determines the interconnection cost and does not profit from that expense.

Jim Kelly, the utility’s vice president for government and community relations and corporate communications, added that the company is also providing the solar panel space for free, and said it's keeping the project open to other bidders, clarifying that HECO must follow rules that are set for other entities.

"We'd love for there to be a bunch of bidders so that they're all bidding against each other and we get the one that's going to be the lowest price and the most benefit for the community," Kelly said, noting that the selection process has many scoring categories to find the best project manager.

While it will take months before project bids are processed, Yamashita said HECO's agreement not to self-build on the project already gave new hope to the community, knowing that the solar panels will not be owned by the utility.

Yamashita said Molokai is ready to create a new reputation that it's not the "island of hard knocks" -- rather it's a community that knows how to successfully steward the environment in a way that supports the economy while preserving the culture.

As the co-op waits for the final RFP from HECO, Yamashita said he's already reaching out to people in communities off the grid.

Molokai resident Kala'e Tangonan gives a walk thru of her mothers living area located on Hawaiian homestead land near the Molokai Airport.
Molokai resident Kala'e Tangonan shows off her mother's living area located on Hawaiian homestead land near the Molokai Airport. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Near the airport, on 35 acres of agricultural land leased from the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, brightly painted haole koa trees along Nenehanaupo Avenue border the Camara property, previewing the equally vibrant self-built homes scattered across the homestead.

"There was a little stipulation that said you can build on the homestead land without any kind of permit or anything if it's a worker's hut or a temporary dwelling, so all, everything on the property is temporary," Molokai resident Scarlette Ritte-Camara said.

After living without electricity from the utility for over 20 years in homes described as "permanent camping," having a fridge hooked up to a small tank of propane is her largest energy need; she said she has no intention of ever paying a utility bill.

Due to its proximity to the airport, one home on the homestead is garnished with bright tags for incoming planes. Ritte-Camara's oldest daughter, Kala'e Tangonan, explained that nothing on the property may exceed 16 feet and that HECO gave her a recent quote to install an underground power line that exceeded $10,000.

"I have grandkids that need an asthma machine and need Wi-Fi to survive in 2021," Ritte-Camara said. "I'm not against electricity." But she explained that she does not trust the utility to bring her electricity that comes without a catch that would eventually harm her family.

Molokai resident Thadd Camara sits in his living area that he built on property located on Molokai Hawaiian homestead land near the Molokai Airport.
Molokai resident Thadd Camara sits in a living area he built on Hawaiian homestead land near the Molokai Airport. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Thadd Camara, Ritte-Camara's former husband, said that he's excited for the co-op to take off and help bring solar energy to his property. He said that life on Molokai is not for everyone, but that it's his choice to live there. So, he wants to embrace the new co-op and make life the best it can be.

"Whenever you fall in love with any person, place or thing, you respect and honor that love,” he said.

Civil Beat's coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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