Finding the way to energy self-sufficiency: Life of the Land report offers solutions for Molokai

On March 31, Life of the Land published a report on the potential for renewable energy in Hawaii, including 1,400 words on how Molokai can become energy self-sufficient.

Life of the Land logo

The non-profit organization Life of the Land, founded in 1970, serves as a Hawaii-based environmental and community action group. Its stated mission: “To preserve and protect the life of the land through sustainable land use and energy policies and to promote open government through research, education, advocacy and, when necessary, litigation.”

While the State of Hawaii has set a goal of providing 70 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2030, Life of the Land believes the state “should generate 90 percent of its electricity from distributed energy resources by 2025.” This is the central thesis in the report titled, “Wayfinding: Sowing the Seeds for Transforming Energy Futures,” by Henry Curtis.

To do this, the report says, the state needs to change its focus. Instead of working toward a “Smart Grid” solution which offers a top-down, centralized energy system distribution, the state would be better off with a “Distributed Generation” model.

“The essence of Distributed Generation …” states the report, “is to balance supply and demand by relying on small-scale, dispersed power generation systems located adjacent to where the power is needed.”

For Hawaiian Electric Company, one of the problem with this model is that as the fixed costs for renewable energy go down, more customers will choose to leave the interconnected electrical grid. This means that HECO must raise its rates as fewer customers will be paying to maintain the grid. In anticipation of this problem, HECO has already sought and received the approval of the Public Utility Commission to maintain its current level of profits through a process called decoupling.

To avoid these inevitable rate hikes, Life of the Land suggests … “communities should find ways of leaving the grid now. In the process they can save money, increase the amount of revenue that stays and circulates within their local communities, while creating local jobs, and decreasing the environmental, social and cultural impacts associated with energy production, transmission and use. Since each island has different resources and different values it only makes sound social and economic sense to design each island system differently.”

“Today Molokai has all of the resources it needs to become energy self-sufficient and to stop exporting cash for transportation fuel and electricity,” begins the chapter on Molokai.

Transportation is the first issue addressed for Molokai in the report. To be self-sufficient, the island must develop infrastructure to support rechargeable electric automobiles. This includes building community charging stations at Maunaloa, Kaunakakai, Kualapuu and Manae.

The report identifies five different types of renewable energy sources that can be effective on Molokai: expanded use of photovoltaic systems, wind power (using micro turbines, not industrial-sized windmills), hydropower, biomass/biofuels and fuel cells powered by natural gas.

One example given is the use of hydropower, which can help stabilize the energy fluctuations of solar and wind. The 1.4-billion gallon fresh water Kualapuu reservoir, as well as Meyer Lake and Maunaloa Reservoir, could be used for pumped storage hydro. In-line hydro systems can be developed using an 85-kW mini-hydropower plant to provide a water delivery pipeline that is both technically and economically feasible.

To make all this work, the report recommends creating a Molokai Cooperative, which could work with the ‘Aha Ki’ole Advisory Committee to advise it on native Hawaiian resource management practices. A non-profit public-interest cooperative can, “secure grants and donations from governmental agencies and foundations to fund the transition from exporting cash for fuel to island self-sufficiency.”

The report continues: … “A cooperative can pool money, secure long-term financing for renewable energy projects, and employ local residents to assist in the transition. An on-bill financing program allows a cooperative to finance the purchase of renewable energy systems and energy efficient devices through energy savings provided by such systems or devices. That is to say, photovoltaic systems cost a lot of money up front, but if the cooperative rather than the resident buys the system, the ratepayer can make payments that are less than their current bill and after the system is paid off, they would own it.”

Implementing these ideas would make Molokai self-sufficient and return its nickname “`aina momona,” the bountiful land. Until this happens, Molokai will simply need to continue to rely on its single power plant in Pala’au with its nine diesel units and one combined cycle generator.


10 Responses

  1. Remember that PC cells/units have end of life issues, not the least of which is hazardous waste disposal. Hopefully, in the future, when the PC cell life is done, the component chemicals will be so valuable that someone will eagerly take & recycle the panels in some useful & safe way.

  2. Remember that there are chemical constituents in currently designed PV panels that make them a hazardous waste when the panels come to their end of life cycle. Hopefully the technology improves to make the panels easy to recycle and/or cost effective to do so. The first question I would ask before purchase & installation is, are there silicon or other potentially hazardous constituents in the panels. If so, I”m not sure I would want to own them after 20-30 years because hazardous waste disposal can be problematic and potentially very expensive

  3. Stay off the beach…all that silicon (sand) is hazardous 😉 and stay away from glass too…drink only from your hand or other “natural” container.

  4. another factor is the cost of electric vehicles for the people of Moloka’i. That is going to be huge! I know I couldn’t afford one

    • With the tax breaks and cheaper and longer lasting rechargeable batteries the cost is actually quite comparable to a new gas-powered car. In the next few years prices will drop even further and they will make lots of sense.

  5. Suppose the cooperative were to get a federal grant, purchase the electric vehicles, and lease them to residents at rates below the current cost to operate gas powered cars. Suppose cost were not the issue, because grants would cover them. What mix of resources would you suggest as Moloka`i residents for Moloka`i?

  6. Henry is absolutely correct, that we have the resources to be energy self dependant and hydro storage has been one of the most overlooked and obvious sources of power available to us. While idealistically I agree with Henry Curtis, these goals remain detached from the current reality on Molokai, unfortunately the current reality being that while we exercise passion, in my opinion we lack the organizational fortitude and discipline to carry out and maintain such a lofty goal. I do hope that this will change, but then again I hope for many things. And incidentally I would enjoy being proven wrong in this matter……The great contradiction in Henry’s comment is in the suggestion of using a federal grant to maintain an electric vehicle program, somehow discounting that this is still a real expense. It is one that is just simply passed on to federal tax payers instead of State based tax payers- And I might add with even less ratio of return on the dollar. Being truly sustainable means getting off the dole not building our foundation on it. Any design for energy self sufficiency and sustainability must cohabit a design for economic sustainability.

    • Sadly, given the current state of Molokai’s human resources, I have to agree with you Steve. However, improving the “organizational fortitude and discipline” on Molokai can happen through education. UH Maui College (formerly Maui Community College) is expanding its campus on Molokai and its programs. The people of Molokai certainly have the passion to be self-sufficient; now they just need to make sure their keiki get college educations and then return home to give back to the ‘aina.

      • da-a-a-mn,

        go away for a few days and one misses quite alot of good t’inking here.

  7. This is certainly better than the bid wind turbines and not even benefiting Molokai at all and destroying the reef and harbor. Lets make it happen.

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