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International Energy Leaders Visit Molokai

Photo by Catherine Cluett Pactol

A proposal for a large-scale solar project on Molokai is on the table and residents are questioning the project’s benefits and whether community ownership of the project down the road is viable or desirable. With the island’s energy grid on the brink of change, a group of community energy leaders from around the world visited Molokai last Monday to share their perspectives on renewable energy solutions with residents.

“We [want to] come away with a sense of hopefulness… that together we can make happen what we need to have happen that benefits our aina and our community,” said Emillia Noordhoek, co-director of Sust`aina ble Molokai, which hosted the day-long discussion at the Kulana `Oiwi Halau on Feb. 19.

Several years ago, Noordhoek started researching renewable energy models around the world, one of which was the island of Samso in Denmark, which had achieved 100 percent community owned renewable energy in 10 years. When she was in Denmark for a conference in 2013, she visited the island and a working relationship was born that has resulted in the Tentou Network. Tentou connects small communities with similar energy goals around the world to form a more powerful collective voice. Today, Tentou includes five community organizations from Denmark, Japan, Australia, Maine (U.S.) and Molokai.

“What Emillia has done is gone around the world and cherry picked these experts who also live on small islands in rural communities and were at a position that we’re in now — how do we create a sustainable future for ourselves?” said Sust`aina ble Molokai board member and UH law professor Malia Akutagawa. “So we have the benefit of hearing from them… the lessons that they learned, what worked for their community, what are the questions that they asked… The purpose and intent of this is to… be able to make well informed decisions.”

Members of the Tentou Network shared their communities’ journeys to renewable energy solutions with Molokai residents. Also attending the discussion were representatives of Maui Electric as well as Half Moon Ventures, the company that has proposed a 37-acre solar array and battery storage project that could supply more than 40 percent of Molokai’s energy needs.

While getting one step closer to independence from oil is incentive for many community members, others are questioning the project’s costs and benefits. Half Moon Ventures (HMV) and Maui Electric recently entered an agreement, and Maui Electric will be submitting a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) for approval by the Public Utilities Commission by the end of March, according to Mike Hastings of HMV. The details of that agreement cannot be disclosed until the PPA is submitted to the PUC and becomes public.

At that time, Molokai residents can read the agreement and make their voices heard by the PUC. The project is being funded in part by New Market tax credits, which require community support.

After five years, the community would have the option to buy the HMV project.

“Maui Electric has allowed us to put in language into the PPA that gives the community the right to bid…” said Hastings, though it is not currently clear at what price that would be.

Hastings said the 2.7-megawatt project would supply more than 40 percent of the island’s energy. Currently rooftop solar constitutes about 20 percent of Molokai’s electricity usage, so with the addition of HMV’s project, the island would be nearly 70 percent renewable. Hastings emphasized that that leaves about 30 percent open for another community-driven project if that’s what residents want.

The project may also make it possible to install rooftop solar onto Molokai’s grid, said Hastings. however, it’s currently unclear if it would lower residents’ energy bills. HMV staff has said that because the project would lower the island’s use of oil, the portion of residents’ electric bills that comes from fuel costs would be reduced. However, many residents are looking for more assurance.

Gregg Kresge, director of renewable energy projects at Maui Electric, encouraged attendees last Monday to carefully consider the options.

“[The HMV project] wouldn’t have gotten this far… if it didn’t show some savings to the customer, that’s our main requirement,” he said. “[However] it’s very important to note that it may not be the best fit to allow additional [rooftop solar]… because you’re going to end up paying for that energy twice.”

Kresge explained that the HMV project uses large batteries to store solar energy generated during the day. Maui Electric’s programs give credit for electricity generated through customers’ rooftop solar installations. But with the proposed project, that excess rooftop electricity generated would flow into HMV’s battery and customers would be charged again when they use the stored electricity, according to Kresge.

“So I want there to be some discussion in this room because that ends up with a higher cost to you,” he said. “So I’m not exactly certain that that is the best arrangement for you… We heard at our community meetings that yes we want renewable energy but not at all costs. We still want cheaper, reliable… power.”

In a 2013 survey, Sust`aina ble Molokai found that a significant portion of many Molokai families’ income goes toward their electric bills. Twenty percent of survey participants said that 20 to 30 percent of their paychecks are paid to the electric utility, said Sust`aina ble Molokai’s Harmonee Williams.

Tentou members shared their solutions to balancing the desire for renewable energy with the costs and benefits associated. Most of the communities represented have successfully used a combination of solar, wind and other renewable energy sources, and have used a model of residents buying shares of the project and funding it through loans.

Soren Hermansen of Samso, a small island of about 4,000 residents, said like Molokai, his community initially opposed using large wind turbines to generate electricity. But they found that turbines were a good option for them, and he joked that once residents bought shares of the turbines, they suddenly found them less ugly. He said renewable energy has created jobs and allowed young people to move back to their home when once they had to leave for work.

In Maine, Suzanne MacDonald of the Island Institute shared three keys to success: organize, know what you want, and build a team. As many on Molokai can attest, organizing a community can be challenging. Figuring out how to share information, make decisions and communicate with potential developers is important to moving forward together. Knowing what you want collectively as a community can also pose challenges, and merging values and goals into one collective vision is key. MacDonald said it takes a lot of specialized expertise to make community renewable energy models happen, so it’s important to become educated and build a team with the right people. That can include community members, energy experts, politicians, lawyers and regulatory experts.

In Japan, farmers are using “solar sharing” where they combine crops and solar panels in their fields to supplement their incomes and using community investments to create a sustainable economy.

In the small community of Victoria, Australia, the first energy cooperative in the country raised $10 million from 2,000 members to build two wind turbines. The project provided more than enough energy for the town and started a renewable energy movement across Australia.

Sust`aina ble Molokai staff leading the workshop hoped hearing these stories would inspire similar renewable energy solutions for Molokai that bring substantial benefits for the community.

“We’re here because as an island we have always ferociously loved this place, we’re very protective of it… we have to arm ourselves with knowledge of what is out there,” said Akutagawa.
Special mahalo to Audrey Newman for contributing to this story.


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