Rob Parsons

Oils Well that Ends Well

Blue Planet leads the charge to ban new fossil fuel electric plants

by Rob Parsons

April 30 , 2009
Maui Time

The e-mail alert from Blue Planet Foundation announced a "Rally for Clean Energy" at the State Capitol, noon on Monday. "Music by Henry Kapono, free T-shirts, 100 percent solar powered." Hey, I thought, this is my kind of rally.

Blue Planet www.blueplanetfoundation.org , the upstart nonprofit with the ambitious goal of making Hawaii a role model for energy independence within 10 years, has stepped to the forefront of Hawaii's clean energy movement in a very short time. Founder Henk Rogers, Tetris video game designer and entrepreneur, tapped the Sierra Club's top environmental lobbyist, Jeff Mikulina, to be Blue Planet's executive director. 

Mikulina's accomplishments over the past decade include Hawaii's Bottle Redemption Bill, the Legacy Lands Act to fund purchase of conservation lands and easements and last year's Solar Rooftops bill, mandating solar hot water systems on all new residences starting in 2010.

With the state legislature in its final week of deliberation, it's crunch time on final lobbying efforts, including bills designed to guide our energy future. One of the boldest pieces of legislation, House Bill 1464, would prohibit construction of new fossil fuel-burning power plants—that is, those running on imported coal or oil. Hawaii is already 92 percent dependent on these fuel sources for electricity, resulting in some $6 billion leaving the state last year alone. 

But it's apparent that HB1464 is threatened by political foot-dragging and bickering over specific language, which ultimately could render the measure impotent. Amendments to the original bill would exempt Kauai—where a new electric plant is already planned—until 2015 and would open the door for blends of token amounts of renewable fuels along with fossil fuels.

"It's premature to cut off any of our options," said Rep. Hermina Morita (D-Hanalei-Kapaa), chairwoman of the Energy & Environmental Protection Committee, quoted in an Associated Press article. "I'm not sure you want such a definitive statement in statute, where we wouldn't have very much flexibility."

That was all I needed to hear. Determined to lend my voice to the renewable energy cause, I booked my flight, ready to be part of a historic effort that could inspire communities and policymakers far beyond Hawaii's shores.

Kulolo, our big white cat, hopped on my chest around 5am, serving as my wake-up call. As birds and roosters awakened and responded to the morning light, I began writing testimony on Maui Tomorrow letterhead: 

Maui leads the state in renewable energy integration, with 9 percent of our energy coming from wind, and another 7 percent from biomass, burning bagasse at HC&S's sugar mill. However, few people know that along with 100,000 tons of bagasse burned yearly, the plantation also burns 60,000 tons of coal.

Maui Electric's plants burn more than 1.5 million gallons of petroleum weekly, some 75 million gallons yearly. In November 2007, MECO president Ed Reinhardt told Energy Expo attendees they intend to construct a new diesel burning generation facility at their Maui Waena site in 2012.

There is no rational reason for increasing Hawaii's capacity for consumption of imported fossil fuel, and we should also include the idea of importing palm oil biodiesel under the preposterous guise that it is in any way sustainable. 

Arriving at the state Capitol around mid-morning, I discovered another eco-effort underway. The young, sustainability-focused organization Kanu Hawaii www.kanuhawaii.org was offering compact fluorescent light bulbs to all 78 lawmakers, calculating that each bulb could save the user $20 in electricity each year, while preventing 190 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions. 

Kanu volunteers were also checking the tires on each vehicle in the parking garage, leaving notes on the windshield with optimal tire pressure. For every set of under-inflated tires they help to correct, a full tank of gas could be saved in a year's time, and another 220 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions.

Soon, Blue Planet staff and volunteers arrived to set up for the midday rally. Two Sunetric photovoltaic panels were placed in a sunny spot inside the Capitol's rotunda, powering the PA system for musician Henry Kapono and the event speakers.

Many sign-toting University of Hawaii students showed up, some by bicycle. They donned blue T-shirts proclaiming, "I stand for  clean energy," with wind turbines pictured on  the front and a forlorn oil drum on the back. Demonstrators signed a dozen shirts, to be presented to lawmakers on the joint House-Senate conference committee.

After a few rousing songs by Kapono, Mikulina stepped to the podium. "Today," he declared, "we are taking a stand for clean energy. We stand for no new fossil fuel, a future based on clean, indigenous power and safe, affordable, predictable energy that doesn't change our climate or oceans."

Mikulina noted that we now have 2,000 megawatts of fossil fuel-based electrical generation in Hawaii. "Some say it is premature to ban coal and oil," he stated. "We say we're already a few decades late."

Henk Rogers clarified that his goal is not merely to end Hawaii's use of fossil fuels, but all carbon-based fuels. He noted that insertion of the word "solely" into the legislation allowed a huge loophole for blended fossil and renewable fuels and that the measure could become an exercise in futility.

Gov. Lingle stepped to the podium to express her support for the ban of new fossil fuel plants. "I'm with you here today," she said, "to call on our legislature to make this day historic." She noted that even Hawaiian Electric Company was on record supporting the measure.

"This makes the difference between whether our economy grows or stays constricted," Lingle declared. "It makes economic sense, environmental sense and energy security sense."

As the rally dissipated, many UH students returned to afternoon classes. A couple dozen headed upstairs to the conference committee deliberation on HB1464. However, as soon as the blue T-shirts filled the conference room, the conference chair pounded the gavel and deferred the measure until Wednesday, one day before the midnight deadline for final submission of all bills.

Mikulina led 20 or so students around to offices of a dozen lawmakers to present signed T-shirts, his laptop computer held in front of him with the list of conference committee members. I submitted my Maui Tomorrow letter to those still undecided in their support of a full fossil fuel ban:

In 1519, the Spanish conquistador Cortes brought a fleet of ships and a small army to the shores of Mexico, to secure regions controlled by the Aztec Empire for Spanish colonization. Upon landing, Cortes set fire to his ships, so there could be no mistake about the task before them, and no turning back.

Similarly, it is time to take decisive measures for Hawaii's energy future, and to do so without leaving a back door open, or straddling the fence between past wasteful practices and new sustainable potential. Your bold steps taken here today will likely be celebrated worldwide. 

Coupled with a measure such as HB1271, to establish a clean energy fund through a per barrel surcharge on imported fuels, this action would be a boon to the local economy for renewable energy companies and home energy installations.

I ask you today to boldly, decisively set the course for Hawaii's energy future by passing HB1464. This bill is not a perfect solution to the challenges before us, but will go a long way to achieving our goals for local, renewable energy production and conservation.

By the time you read this, state lawmakers will either have taken that bold, decisive step for Hawaii's energy future or missed a golden opportunity.