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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, January 1, 2010

People will power clean energy

By Jeffrey Mikulina

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Solar panels on houses and businesses can make a positive difference in clean energy.


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"If the development of our indigenous energy resources proceeds expeditiously, the potential exists for Hawai'i to become self-sufficient in terms of our electrical energy and highway transportation fuel needs in the next 20 to 30 years." Those words accompanied a 1977 plan for Hawai'i's energy independence by the year 2010.

The plan developed by more than 100 Hawai'i experts for the state Senate reminds us that the goal of weaning Hawai'i from imported oil has been as enduring as it has been elusive.

Achieving that goal will require something more than a government initiative; as with any major social change, the transformation to our clean energy future will be powered by people.

Hawai'i has sought ways to tap into indigenous sources of power for more than a century. A 1902 letter to the editor in The Advertiser suggested that the "Pali winds would supply Honolulu with cheap power" and without such sources of power Hawai'i would remain an "inferior place." Biomass from sugarcane provided a good chunk of Hawai'i's electricity throughout the 20th century, although the dependence on imported oil grew.

The 1973 oil embargo shifted the renewable-energy effort into high gear. The preface of a 1974 State of Hawai'i Energy Policies Plan stated, "Instead of disappearing, certain kinds of bad dreams have the tendency of recurring." The 1977 Senate report quoted above lamented the "$500 million worth of imported oil that has no positive impact upon our economy."

We heard the alarm, but then, as humans are apt to do, we hit snooze. The collective conscious shifted as the price of oil fell and other crises commanded the public's attention. Today, the percentage of electricity generated by clean energy statewide is nearly half what it was during the first Earth Day in 1970. Oil importation over the same period has grown about 50 percent. The $500 million oil price tag in 1977 has since inflated tenfold.

We know that Hawai'i's dependence on imported crude is going to come to an end. The question is whether it will be on our terms or on someone else's terms and how much damage must our climate and oceans suffer in the meantime.

While the ambitious Hawai'i Clean Energy Initiative is commendable for its federal participation and expertise, much of the plan currently hangs on large Neighbor Island wind projects and an expensive undersea cable. That decision must evolve organically and democratically from the communities where the infrastructure will be built. The discussion cannot be forced or fabricated. The planning has showed us what is possible; it's up to us to decide what is acceptable.

Hawai'i's future power system will likely be anchored by larger clean energy sources wind, concentrating solar, ocean energy but much of the power will come from neighborhood or rooftop sources such as solar photovoltaic. This democratized, distributed model of community-scaled power generation and storage would also fulfill Thomas Edison's 1880s vision of a power plant in every community. The difference is that our power plants would be clean, quiet and sustainable.

The other way people form the basis for our energy transformation will be in the small daily decisions and behaviors we all make. No amount of new technologies or policies will overcome a culture of waste at the individual level. The decision to invest in solar energy, to ride a bike, to buy locally is personal. But the effects are collective.

Blue Planet is growing a grassroots movement of 10,000 fellow islanders committed to Hawai'i's clean energy transition. We're developing powerful tools to make it much easier for Hawai'i residents to make smart energy choices (www.blueplanetfoundation.org/makeover).

Now is Hawai'i's moment in history to achieve something bold for the globe, sending ripples of our success across the Pacific. But Hawai'i's energy revolution will not be fueled by a government plan or a single company's vision that's what led us to where we are today. Any lasting social change must be driven by people people with shared values for a common future. That's the renewable force Hawai'i needs to shake free from fossil fuel.