Hawaii Pioneers the Pursuit of a Clean Energy Future

Hawaii – more than any state in America – is the most reliant on fossil fuels, due to its dependence on tourism and the military. However, the 50th state is leading our nation’s green energy movement and becoming an archetype for the rest of the country.  

America’s First Commitment to 100% Clean Energy

Back in 2015, The Aloha State became the first in the nation to mandate a complete transition to renewable power. Passing America’s first renewable energy standard, Hawaii vowed to source all of its electricity from renewable sources by 2045.

At the time, the state was generating about 22 percent of its electricity from wind, solar, geothermal and other renewable power sources. Today, the Islands source roughly 33 percent of its electricity from rooftop solar alone and have more than 60 utility-scale renewable energy projects feeding its power grid. On good days, the state generates as much as 60 percent of its energy from renewables.

Setting an Example by Grid Modernization

Other states are keeping an eye on Hawaii, and watching as The Aloha State produces clean energy without overloading the power grid and causing brownouts. Hawaiian electric companies are taking a proactive approach to modernize their grids and prepare the state for future loads of renewable energy. Working with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), these utilities are analyzing trends and simulating grid scenarios to ensure stability in the years to come.

So far, the organizations have found that using smart inverters are “critical” for helping experts identify and mitigate voltage spikes. Hawaii is unique in that it can’t just send excess renewable energy on the grid to a neighboring state, as California can. And, there are no interconnections among the islands, so utilities need to think outside the box. NREL is helping Hawaii Electric adjust the way it operates its grid “so that all smart inverters ‘play nice’ with legacy fossil fuel-powered generators still operating on the system,” NREL reports. Because each island’s grid is small and independent of the other islands, Hawaii is the ideal testing ground for energy independence.

The Challenges Hawaii Faces

Because Hawaii is the most expensive place in the U.S. to produce electricity, the state still gets a majority of its energy from oil. Replacing that oil with sustainable energy requires storage technology – the ability to keep excess renewable energy and use it (as opposed to fossil fuels) during peak demand. Right now, the cost of storage technology remains high, but it’s starting to decline.

Hawaii residents’ behaviors are also contributing to more renewable energy on the grid. For example, recent data shows that approximately 18 percent of homeowners have their own solar power systems, equal to about 74,000 homes. However, a small percentage of homes are fully off-grid and don’t have the battery backup to sustain power when their panels aren’t producing energy. Utility companies, therefore, must still procure enough fuel to make sure they can supply homeowners with the power they need when the weather does not oblige.

Aside from the storage hurdle, another major challenge facing The Aloha State is its rising need for air conditioning. Thanks to a warming global climate, July 2019 was the hottest month in history. This led to a string of record high temperatures in Hawaii, accompanied by decreasing trade winds. The Hawaii Electric Company reports that 68% of Oahu’s residential customers now have AC, up from 50% in 2014. Maui saw a 9 percent increase in the past five years, with 53% of households now relying on AC. Hawaii Island saw a 13% increase, leaving 32% of homes cooler – but all of these spikes contribute to higher greenhouse gas emissions throughout the state.  

A Green Energy Future is Within Reach

As of fall, 2019, Hawaii’s renewable mix is predominantly derived from solar and wind sources. However, the state has an abundance of clean energy sources – waves, wind, volcanic activity and plenty of sunshine. Power diversification will become increasingly important to combat the various weather elements. The state’s bioenergy, geothermal and hydroelectric facilities will become crucial for times when the wind isn’t blowing or rain prevents sunlight from penetrating solar panels.

The Aloha State is on the cutting edge of America’s new energy economy. As Hawaii works to reduce its reliance on oil and develop the technology to increase its energy independence, it’s showing other states that a green energy future is within reach.


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