A new day in renewable energy?

Analyzing the success of the governor's A New Day in Hawaii plan promise to reduce Hawaii’s dependence on fossil fuel imports and increase efficiency.

Governor Neil Abercrombie’s 2010 A New Day in Hawaiʻi plan set an ambitious goal of generating 70 percent clean energy by 2030, with 40 percent coming from renewable energy generation and 30 percent saved from efficiency measures. In 2010, Abercrombie cited the $5 billion spent annually on oil imports as a major problem for Hawaii. To achieve this goal of reducing dependence on imported fossil fuels, the governor outlined a suite of projects aimed at restructuring and streamlining government agencies, and to increase government efforts in improving energy efficiency and renewability. Here’s how he stacks up:

A new energy authority

Gov. Abercrombie proposed the creation of an entirely new government body: the Hawaii Energy Authority (HEA). The governor intended to return the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to its role as energy rate-setter. He also stated that the State Energy Office (SEO) was underfunded and could not be expected to conduct policy oversight and provide expertise. The new HEA would have the sole goal of working towards energy independence, taking on these above duties in addition to conducting technical studies, creating reliability standards to incorporate independent providers into the grid, and coordinating private contract details.

Instead, Abercrombie’s proposed HEA failed to materialize and, instead, the PUC and SEO were yoked with these past duties, as well as the new initiatives created by the Abercrombie administration that had been intended for HEA’s purview.

The SEO, contained within the department of Business, Economic Development, and Tourism, saw the Program on Environmental and Energy Development lose federal funding and experienced a reduction of staff from 45 full time employees in 2010 to 36 by 2015.

In FY 2011–12, the PUC had a $10.4 million operating budget and 62 positions at its disposal. In 2015, it’s slated to see an increased budget of $14m with the same number of 62 employees. In 2018, the budget is projected to return to $11.3 m. Throughout the PUC’s increasing duties and initiatives, the staff is slated to remain at 62. The New Day plan even stated that the PUC could take up to 2-3 years to clear a docket, whereas other U.S. state agencies generally can complete that work in 60-90 days. Abercrombie began with a vision of the HEA as a full-time leader for energy progress; meanwhile the actual problems with the state’s energy issues were loaded onto the SEO and PUC. (All above funding information is calculated from six departmental reports of both biennium budgets.)

Renewable energy

Abercrombie sought to deal with a major problem in Hawaiʻi’s renewable energy industry: Hawaiʻi’s electric monopolies have been dumping energy supplied back into the grid by private solar and wind systems. The peak of solar system energy generation is in the afternoon, which is not a peak energy consumption time. As a result Hawaii’s energy companies waste millions of kilowatts of renewable power with the excuse of maintaining grid reliability.

Abercrombie tasked the PUC with acquiring cooperation from Hawaiʻi’s electric companies to further integrate renewables into the utilities’ grids. Heavily supported by the governor, this led the PUC to create the Reliability Standards Working Group (RSWG), which convened from 2011-13 and advised the PUC with the suggestion of creating a Hawaiʻi Electric Reliability Authority (HERA) to integrate the renewable energy initiatives.

A New Day in Hawaiʻi also proposed combatting the current power monopolies with free market initiatives and a “democratising” of energy. The RSWG tasked HERA with overseeing the integration of renewable energy into grid while, at the same time, Gov. Abercrombie charged the PUC into engaging with Hawaiʻi’s electric companies. The PUC ordered Hawaiian Electric Company (HECO) to improve its “flawed” integration plan and even ordered HECO to submit a Distributed Generation Interconnection Plan on how to incorporate, rather than dump, energy produced by entities besides HECO.

The PUC received support from Abercrombie in its critique of HECO’s business model, as well as new dockets for Abercrombie-supported projects including the inter-island undersea cable and integrating small scale solar providers (households) into monopoly-run grids.

The primary front of Abercrombie’s democratisation of energy was the implementation of the Green Energy Market Securitisation (GEMS) through the SEO. This $100 million program provides financing intended to curtail start-up costs for solar systems in underserved households and low-income households.

The SEO program was only submitted to the PUC for financing and approval this past month. Still seeking approval from PUC, it is also only one of three tangible achievements cited by the office of the governor.

Abercrombie originally advocated for an increase of approximately $1 to monthly electricity bills to expand the public benefits fund (currently used mainly for solar installation rebates), for research and public education on renewable or efficient energies.

The existing Public Benefits Fee (PBF) provided $30 million for efforts to increase energy efficiency in FY2013, creating 1.4billion kWh in lifetime energy savings.  However, to prevent increases in electricity bills, the PBF surcharge will be reduced by $2, reallocating these funds from the proposed research and education of the PBF to GEMS.

Another major initiative of Abercrombie was an interisland undersea cable to connect the grids of various islands, allowing Oʻahu to cull power from islands with wind or geothermal resources.

However, the controversial project has been contested, flat-out rejected and successfully halted by Molokaʻi communities. Critics of the project saw it as a financially unwise development, not a proven necessity, and a corporate ploy. HECO itself recently stated that, for the time being, it can achieve renewable energy benchmarks without interisland cables given an increase in renewable energy projects on Oʻahu.
Nonetheles, Abercrombie’s achievement publication states that a “structure is in place to facilitate” this interisland cable.

Energy efficiency

Abercrombie also proposed renovation or reconstruction of state-owned buildings to maximise energy efficiency: titled “Lead by Example.”

For two years, Hawaiʻi has ranked above all U.S. states in per capita spending on green technologies for state and county buildings. The major ongoing project is refitting Hawaiʻi’s twelve airports to reduce energy consumption there by 49 percent, and creating $518 million in savings over the next 20 years. Hawaiʻi was listed among the top 10 U.S. states in the LEED programme (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design).

Hawaiʻi spends 10 percent of its GDP on energy: petrol imports, coal, etc. Transportation and electricity generation consumes the bulk of fossil fuel imports.

Under the Abercrombie administration, efforts have been focused on the yet-to-be-implemented GEMS program, renovating state buildings and on dialogue regarding oversight of HECO, with secondary attention given to transportation concerns. Improvements in transportation energy were not an explicit accomplishment in his accomplishment report.

Mainly operating through the overextended PUC and SEO, his efforts were hampered by the failure to create the HEA. However, Hawaiʻi has seen reasonably strong growth in renewable energy capacity and continues to see progress; a 10.4 percent growth from 2011-13 for renewable and efficient energy. On the other hand, imports of oil still increased by 1.8 million barrels a year from 2012-14.

A telling example of Hawaii’s energy problems that calls for more aggressive and long-term action by the state government is the “Lead By Example” project. State buildings successfully reduced consumption by 4.8 percent from 2005-13, yet energy prices simultaneously increased by 99 percent, equating to still-increasing expenditures in energy.