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Investing in ourselves

By Senator J. Kalani English

A recent article in one of our statewide daily newspapers featured three Molokai businesses that are using photovoltaic systems to reduce their electric bills. The Friendly Market Center, Kamoi Snack-N-Go, and Molokai Drugs each installed sunlight-powered electrical systems that have reduced their consumption of electricity by up to ninety percent.

One challenge is that while the electricity the system generates is essentially free, the system itself is not. The Friendly Market system, for example, cost about $700,000 for an 81.2 kilowatt system. Even with a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant paying a quarter of the system’s cost, and with state and federal tax credits offsetting more of the investment, it is a substantial amount of money. Friendly Market expects the system to pay for itself in about four and a half years, so there is a payoff in sight down the road.

The “glass-half-empty” way of looking at the example these three businesses are helping to set may be that free electricity is not really free, and unless you can find a few government agencies willing to split the cost, the point where the initial investment begins to provide a real savings is pretty far into your future. However, I don’t think that view provides the most accurate picture.

The fact is that there are programs available to help defray the cost of alternative energy systems, and I am thankful that we have neighbors who are willing to make a commitment to the long term. You may recall that a few weeks ago, I wrote about how critics of a proposed wind farm and statewide power distribution system said that single-home photovoltaic systems were a better alternative energy investment. In that case, my position was, okay, but how would everyone pay for it?

The point is that there is no single alternative energy solution for every need in our community. We cannot look at alternative energy the same way we look at the existing electrical grid: a single source providing every kilowatt we need to fulfill our energy requirements. Instead, each of us must consider what our total consumption is likely to be, and ask what approach will best serve those needs.

Friendly Market, Kamoi Snack-N-Go, and Molokai Drugs deserve credit for making an investment of time and money. At the same time, everyone in the community should thank them for taking action that will eventually provide secondary benefits far beyond what is immediately apparent.

One challenge of our dependence on fossil fuels is the fluctuation in cost. While oil prices are now moving lower, we all know they will rise again. The stability offered by alternative energy will also help these businesses keep their prices down, particularly once the systems themselves are paid for. That’s a benefit we will all enjoy.

I am committed to continuing my support for the spread of alternative energy in our community, and ensuring that the widest range of options will be available. I also hope all of us will continue to ask what more we can do individually to help us all.

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