Visitors to the 17th floor at 55 Merchant St., a commercial tower in Downtown Honolulu, can immediately feel the energy.
It’s home to the Blue Planet Foundation, a nonprofit with the ambitious goal of guiding Hawaii on the road to producing 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2045.
Sit down for an hour with Executive Director Jeff Mikulina and Chief of Staff and Policy Director Melissa Miyashiro and one comes away with the sense that the state’s energy goal is clearly within reach, with 26 years still to go.
A major reason, Mikulina says, is that “technology is changing by the day,” making power from renewable sources cheaper than energy produced from fossil fuels. Another reason is that a state law that has been on the books since 2015 mandates a total conversion to renewables.
Political history shows that laws do not necessarily become realities. Even choosing the year 2045 as the deadline was based on politics, not science. Blue Planet and other clean-energy advocates pushed for the year 2040 as the deadline; legislators wanted 2050. The year 2045 became the compromise.
Mikulina says the year is not a critical factor. “Don’t worry about it; just set a date,” he says, noting that having a deadline on the books forces the state’s electric utilities to do long-range planning. California has taken Hawaii’s lead, making 2045 its deadline for 100 percent conversion to renewable energy.
Another reason for optimism is a study that Blue Planet Foundation conducted last year for the 10th anniversary of its founding by entrepreneur and philanthropist Henk Rogers. It found that:
- In 2008, 6 percent of Hawaii’s electrical power came from renewable sources. That number is 27 percent today.
- Hawaii had 160 electric vehicles registered in 2008. We now have nearly 7,000 on the streets.
- Residential energy use has declined dramatically. The average use per home was 656 kilowatt hours in 2008. It’s now 482 kilowatt hours.
- Rooftop solar contributed 2.6 megawatts of power a decade ago. It’s now 280 times higher, at 700 megawatts.
Clean energy can come from many sources, such as wind, waves and geothermal. But solar is the key to moving more quickly toward 100 percent renewables, Mikulina says. The knock against solar has been that it works only when the sun is shining – when the clouds come in, the power goes out. That is changing as new technology increases the capacity of batteries that store energy from the sun for use later. Solar not only is cheaper than fossil fuels; it is becoming as reliable.
That doesn’t mean that everyone is embracing it. The state has been misinterpreting the language of a law that mandates solar water heaters in new residential construction. The result has been a rubber-stamping of variance requests, leading to the installation of heaters powered by gas instead of solar.
Earlier this month, Hawaii Circuit Court Judge Jeffrey Crabtree ruled in favor of a hui of clean-energy advocates and against the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism regarding the water heaters.
“We’re awaiting the final order for more clarity on what that means for the variance process going forward,” Miyashiro told me. “Blue Planet Foundation has been working to close this loophole for several years, so the judge’s ruling is a promising development in the right direction.”
To that end, the foundation is supporting HB 557 and SB 617, which clarify the law’s language and close the loopholes. The bills should see action in the current legislative session.
Mikulina and Miyashiro, who both drive electric cars, point out another anomaly in the move toward clean energy. Private developers of Hawaii’s growing collection of high-rises are not installing charging stations in the parking garages. Installing the stations during construction would cost pennies compared to the cost of the structures. The foundation supports HB 559 and SB 1000, which require that new construction be EV ready.
I asked Mikulina and Miyashiro if Liquefied Natural Gas is a dead issue in terms of becoming a “bridge” between oil and renewable sources. While no political issue is ever entirely dead, LNG is no longer cost effective as an alternative fuel, they said. Solar is already available at half the cost of LNG.
I asked them if 100 percent reliance on renewable fuel sources includes commercial and military aircraft. Mikulina recalled the around-the-world flight of Solar Impulse 2 in 2015 and 2016. Yes, it took 505 days to travel 26,000 miles at an average speed of 45 miles per hour. It carried only two persons. And it spent 10 months in a hangar in Honolulu awaiting major repairs.
Mikulina, who admits to being an optimist, reminded me of the Wright Brothers, whose first flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903 had its share of skeptics who said commercial aviation would never fly. They would be proven wrong within a few years. The first commercial flight in the U.S. came just five years later, and a Russian plane carrying 16 passengers took off on its maiden flight in 1914. Solar Impulse 2, he says, could be our version of the Wright Brothers flight, leading to rapid advances in the way we power aircraft.
Meanwhile, the Blue Planet Foundation is preparing for a high-energy future. It has increased its staff to 10, the largest in its nearly 11 years in business, and operates on a $1.5 million annual budget. Mikulina, the engineer, and Miyashiro, the attorney, share leadership duties, enabling them to expand their vision and community outreach while staying true to their mission of helping Hawaii gain independence from its reliance on fossil fuels.
In doing so, Mikulina says, Hawaii, now the most dependent of the 50 states on fossil fuels, will become a national and global model for fighting climate change by cleaning up its act. He points to the advances in just the past decade as proof that renewable energy is the new reality.
Contact Blue Planet Foundation Executive Director Jeff Mikulina at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact Blue Planet Foundation Chief of Staff and Policy Director Melissa Miyashiro at email@example.com.