Offshore wind turns the lights on, wave energy charges the car and hydrogen heats the home — this is an attainable future in the eyes of Hawaiian Electric Co. president and CEO Scott Seu.

On Friday, the company made an ambitious pledge to reduce its carbon emissions by 70% by the year 2030, compared with 2005 levels, as it steps up efforts to achieve zero emissions by 2045 in line with the state’s goal.

A key element to meeting the new goal includes adding 50,000 rooftop solar systems to the 90,000 already connected to the grid, the utility said. Spokesman Jim Kelly called the number “conservative,” noting that the utility added 6,000 new rooftop solar systems in 2020.

Solar Photo voltaic near Dole Wahiawa1
Increasing the use of solar panels is a key element to meeting Hawaiian Electric’s goal of sharply reducing carbon emissions by 2030. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“The advantage of that commitment was that we stopped talking about ‘should we do this?’ And we start talking about, ‘how do we do this?’ And I do think that shift is incredibly important and useful,” said Robert Harris, director of public policy at the San Francisco-based solar company Sunrun Inc.

Harris feels “cautiously optimistic” about HECO’s announcement, saying he is looking forward to hearing the concrete steps ahead to accomplish that goal.

HECO has in the past expressed hesitancy about connecting more solar systems that could overwhelm the grid, but Seu said technological advances have allowed for a more robust capacity by manipulating energy use and storage during specific hours of the day.

In addition to its long-standing commitment to dismantle the state’s last coal plant in September, HECO plans to retire six fossil-fueled generating units by 2030 — two units at the Waiau power plant on Oahu and four at the Kahului plant on Maui.

While there are no set dates for when the units will stop operating, HECO’s reliance on fossil fuels is contingent on its ability to replace power plants with renewable energy resources, Kelly said.

The company also pledged to have at least one gigawatt’s worth of renewable energy projects by 2030, including shared solar community-based renewable energy.

Opponents against the windmills in Kahuku hold signs along Kamehameha Highway.
Windmills in Kahuku have drawn protests by neighbors claiming they are disruptive. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The monopoly has faced criticism over the years for backing large scale community-based renewable energy projects that were not aligned with local support. Residents in Kahuku say massive wind turbines have disrupted their quality of life, and people in Waianae are tired of looking at large solar farms that do not directly support their energy needs.

Seu said he could not immediately promise larger benefits for future community-based projects, but he said community engagement is part of the central discussion.

“The issues of equity are very real,” Seu said. “Certain communities are saying, ‘Hey, we are hosting a lot of infrastructure, which provides benefit to the broader island,’ so that is starting to resonate very clearly.”

But HECO is only one part of the approval process that it takes to create renewable energy projects, Kelly said, referencing a 2005 project pitch to the Public Utility Commission to include a lower rate for people in neighboring zip codes. It was not approved at the time, but Kelly explained that community negotiations are happening now and look promising in the future.

The company also said that it wants to increase customer incentives.

HEI HECO Waiau power plant overview1. 14 april 2016.
Hawaiian Electric’s Waiau Power Plant in Pearl City. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

While the Hawaii net energy metering program incentive ended in 2015, Harris explained that HECO has a battery bonus program that gives some cash back to customers who add energy storage to a new or existing rooftop solar system. He also said that there are both state and federal tax credits for implementing rooftop solar panels.

On Monday, during the U.N. Climate Conference in Scotland, President Joe Biden reiterated his promise to reduce U.S. carbon emission by 50% by 2030. Seu noted that HECO is setting its goals to match national commitments, supporting the governor’s pledge to reach zero emissions by 2045.

So far, HECO’s announcement has received overwhelming support from Hawaii-based organizations Blue Planet Foundation, Ulupono Initiative and the Institute for Climate and Peace.

Ulupono Initiative’s President Murray Clay commended HECO on its ambitious promise, saying that every sector impacts the path to decarbonization but energy is at the forefront of importance.

“We hope Hawaiian Electric’s announcement will inspire businesses and leaders statewide to make similar bold commitments and work collaboratively to turn those commitments into real action,” Melissa Miyashiro, executive director of Blue Planet Foundation, said in a statement.

While noting the goal is a stretch, Seu said he wants to look back on this moment as a time that changed the Earth’s trajectory for the better.

“How we use energy at each of our homes — all of that will be actively coming together on a real time basis, in order to keep our energy reliable, and cost effective, but most importantly, getting rid of the carbon.”

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