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Molokai Decides Its Own Energy Future

By Catherine Cluett Pactol | Editor

Graphic by Marissa Motas.

Something electrifying is happening on Molokai. The community is taking charge of its own energy destiny. 

Molokai residents have long been known for choosing their own path. Now, another important process of self-determination is taking place: Residents are taking the lead to develop a plan that could save you money, make Molokai’s electric grid self-sufficient and independent of outside resources, create local jobs and better prepare the island for emergencies. 

When you picture how you get your electricity in 10 years, what do you envision? With ever-rising power bills causing increasing hardship for many Molokai families, cost is likely a top priority for everyone. But what if the fuel barge, feeding the diesel generators that currently supply about 85 percent of the island’s electricity, stops coming? What if locally-produced renewable energy could both cut Molokai’s cost of electricity and create a cleaner environment for future generations, all while developing jobs that residents are already training for? 

“The Molokai Clean Energy Resilience Action Plan is our once in a lifetime opportunity to change the way decisions are made for Molokai,” said Leilani Chow, coordinator of Sust’ainable Molokai’s Clean Energy Hui, which is facilitating the community energy planning process currently underway.  “The community has the power to decide what Molokai will look like in our energy future, and we need everyone to participate, ask questions and share your mana’o so our community led plan reflects our community voice.”

Molokai currently pays among the highest electric rates in the nation – and it’s adding up fast for local families. 

Molokai’s Todd Yamashita is president of Ho’ahu Energy Cooperative Molokai, another key local organization involved in planning for the island’s energy future. He describes Molokai’s current track of dependency on fossil fuels as a “slow moving disaster.”

“There are families going under right now because of their utility bills,” he said. “When a family has to pay several hundred dollars more each month over years, it’s a real disaster. That’s the real race that we’re running against.”

Exactly how much will be saved on electric bills is still to be determined, dependent on what projects the community decides will move forward. But under the Molokai Clean Energy Resilience Action Plan (CERAP) — a comprehensive, island-wide energy blueprint being developed by Molokai residents – projects that don’t bring significant long term savings for the community won’t move forward. 

In cooperation with the framework CERAP is laying, Ho’ahu Energy provides implementation and a local workforce ready to install solar. 

Both organizations are working closely with Hawaiian Electric, and proposed renewable energy projects would be tied into the utility’s existing grid. 

Currently, about 85 percent of Molokai’s energy is generated by diesel at Hawaiian Electric’s Pala’au Power Plant, while about 15 percent comes from rooftop solar. The State of Hawaii has set a goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2045 for the entire state, and if all goes well, Molokai may be on track to beat that objective. 

Taking the Driver’s Seat

Molokai has a track record of failed renewable energy proposals from outside developers, largely for lack of community benefits and resident approval. In 2007, the “Big Wind” project was promoted by the state, in which industrial scale wind turbines on Molokai would generate energy for use on Oahu. In 2013, Princeton Energy Group proposed a large-scale solar farm. Other iterations of solar projects were pushed by Half Moon Ventures, New Energy Partners and more. 

In June of last year, the Clean Energy Hui — a group of residents facilitated by local nonprofit Sust’ainable Molokai — decided to flip the process. Instead of waiting for a developer to propose a project for Molokai, the community would decide its own energy design and destiny, then solicit proposals to fill those needs. 

The Hui asked the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission to halt active dockets for Molokai so the community could lead its own planning process, which became the Molokai Clean Energy Resilience Action Plan, or CERAP. The Public Utilities Commission agreed, putting all Molokai energy proposals on hold.  

Meanwhile, members of the Molokai Clean Energy Hui learned all they could about Molokai’s energy grid, usage, economics and community and environmental impacts. They surveyed more than 500 residents to gauge energy priorities, and since the beginning of this year, hosted outreach opportunities and are currently holding discussions with Molokai focus groups. Between Sept. 20 and 29, four district discussions will be held for community input with open-house booth formats in Mana’e, Kaunakakai, Ho’olehua and Maunaloa – a vital opportunity for the public to share their mana’o. 

Oahu’s Andrew Aoki of Islander Institute is assisting the Clean Energy Hui as a facilitator. 

“As kids, we’re taught that ‘the people’ make the decisions in a democracy, but the fact is, especially in communities like Molokai, outside interests have oversized power and influence,” he said. “For this reason, as I learned more about CERAP, I realized that this is a profoundly important project for Molokai and for anyone who cares about local self-determination, aloha ʻaina, and a resilient economy.”

Meanwhile, as the Clean Energy Hui gained momentum, Ho’ahu Energy Cooperative Molokai also took shape. The group proposed a community solar cooperative in which subscribers would benefit from a large solar installation with battery storage. That plan is still moving forward and the terms are currently being negotiated, said Yamashita. Ho’ahu has also been developing a local workforce that’s trained and ready to build whatever solar projects move forward, an important piece in reducing costs and boosting Molokai’s economy. 

The Plan

The Molokai Clean Energy Resilience Action Plan not only puts a focus on renewable energy but emergency planning. High priorities identified in the plan include protecting access to Molokai’s water sources in the case of power outages, providing backup power generation to first responders, and preserving electricity to critical services including the island’s emergency shelters, harbor, airport and wastewater facilities. 

“Because Molokai doesn’t have much of an emergency plan, we’re all dependent on imported diesel so this is a priority for hardening our emergency response,” said Chow. “Our number one priority was our water pumps. If we don’t get more diesel, we have seven days’ worth stored on island, and once the electricity stops, we only have seven days’ worth of water stored in the tanks. So we want to make all of our water tanks independent and hooked up to renewable energy sources so if we stopped getting [diesel] we’d still be able to get water.”

CERAP offers a variety of options to achieve these goals, such as solar panels floating on Kualapu’u Reservoir that would both mitigate evaporation of valuable water resources and provide an expansive space for a solar installation. 

“It has lots of benefits for our water infrastructure as well as our energy infrastructure,” said Audrey Newman, a sustainability advisor and member of the Clean Energy Hui. “From what we’ve been told, in order to do that, they would need to deal with all the deferred maintenance at Kualapu’u Reservoir, and the floating solar would reduce evaporation so it would actually protect the water supply, and that would be linked to some of the mauka reservoirs [with details still to be determined].”

Pumped hydro as an energy storage solution is also being considered. This method would use two reservoirs to pump water uphill during the day when solar energy is being generated, then flow downhill during the night to generate continued electricity. This method is similar to a large battery in that it allows energy to be released over time and increases the usability of energy generation from solar panels, which can only produce power when the sun is shining. 

Several, smaller scale wind turbines may be considered as an option to augment the flow of reliable renewable energy and harness Molokai’s natural resources if the community so chooses. 

Distributed and decentralized energy generation has also been identified as a priority. Having four community-scale solar grids with battery backup – for example, in Mana’e, Kaunakakai, Ho’olehua and Maunaloa – would be interconnected to the island-wide energy grid but capable of operating independently.

The group is working closely with University of Hawaii’s Hawaii Natural Energy Institute (HNEI), Hawaiian Electric, the Public Utilities Commission and other officials to create a plan that is Molokai-driven and supported while working in tandem with energy experts and planners to ensure the process can move forward smoothly. 

As a key part of the planning process, CERAP is taking technical considerations, cost and implementation into account. To provide this analysis, they enlisted the help of HNEI. 

“In our discussions with Sust’ainable Molokai and the Molokai Clean Energy Hui, it was clear that the Molokai CERAP was intended to be a self-determined, holistic energy plan for Molokai based on credible, independent, and technology-neutral expertise,” said Mark Glick, HNEI specialist. “HNEI was approached to provide that expertise in the analysis and design of a more reliable, resilient energy system that would ultimately be sourced entirely by clean, indigenous energy.  HNEI was also asked to support its efforts to build greater community capacity and understanding in the planning and implementation of the Molokai CERAP.  HNEI’s involvement in the CERAP planning process is a supporting role to Sust’ainable Molokai and MCEH in the co-design of a community-based energy plan in which there is a true sense of community ownership in that plan.”

HNEI has prepared “technical analyses that describe the social, economic and technological performance trade-offs of the various modes for achieving 100 percent renewable energy for electricity generation on Molokai,” explained Glick. He has also worked to present a series of energy scenarios for community feedback, which he said will continue to be reviewed and revised as more community input is gathered to best achieve Molokai’s goals. 

He said this process has been drastically different from other energy planning. 

“Typical energy models seek to achieve an optimal, least-cost solution based on fixed cost assumptions for a mix of renewable options,” explained Glick. “In the Molokai CERAP, scenarios are developed according to the stated community values and purpose and compared by relevant metrics, design factors and constraints, of which cost is just one factor.”

The entire planning process has been based on several principals, Glick said. 

“These have to do with a plan that would achieve a total island community energy system that: 1) consists of equity, fairness and self-determination; 2) supports a total island economy resulting in long term cost savings and greater economic prosperity; and 3) is more resilient and reliable.”

After this month’s round of district discussions, community input will be added to the CERAP first draft, and an island-wide event is being planned in November to review and revise, said Chow. Glick said a report is intended to be completed and shared with the Public Utilities Commission and other interested parties by the end of March, 2023. 

Funding for the CERAP would be determined by what projects are chosen by the community to move forward. Some projects could be funded on a smaller scale, while overall, federal grants will likely play a huge role. 

“Our timing couldn’t be better because the federal government is putting billions of dollars out for infrastructure, and they’re particularly interested in infrastructure equity, so Molokai would be a really strong candidate for that,” suggested Newman. 

Builders Rising

One of the key pieces of the puzzle Ho’ahu Energy is putting into place is workforce development, training Molokai residents to be equipped to install solar themselves. 

“If we are stepping into a new area which is renewables, we need to lead in that area and the only way we can do that is to be ready,” said Yamashita. “So workforce training is getting us ready for the new wave of renewables that’s going to happen here on Molokai and every island. My dream is not just to have Molokai people help themselves but our workforce can potentially work on other islands and help grow renewables elsewhere.”

In a project spearheaded and implemented in just six months by Ho’ahu Project Coordinator Liliana Napoleon, 12 residents already have their solar certification from a nationally accredited program made possible through a partnership with Oahu’s Makaha Learning Center. Yamashita also became certified as a trainer in the program to make hybrid learning on Molokai possible, with online classroom time as well as hands on learning. 

“The big moment for us came a couple weeks ago, we had our first community solar build,” said Yamashita. “This was for a family whose bus [that served as their home] burned down. We had a chance to install a 100 percent free energy system for this family [in their new home]. It has 12 solar panels, a big lithium battery and it all sits in a cabinet and the home has power now. Our workforce students and volunteers put that together in just a few sessions.”

There’s already a waitlist for Ho’ahu’s next round of introductory solar classes scheduled for the spring. And before that, 10 Molokai students will be headed to Arizona for upper level micro grid training in November. 

Ho’ahu’s community solar cooperative proposal, under Hawaiian Electric’s Community-Based Renewable Energy (CBRE) program, would generate about 2.5 megawatts of solar energy with the addition of battery storage, to be located on 16 acres near the site of the Pala’au Power Plant. 

The goal of that project would be to assist renters, which Yamashita estimates to be 30 to 40 percent of Molokai’s population, who aren’t able to install rooftop solar on their homes.

“For us, that’s why we’re doing community solar because renters can get subscription and take it with them wherever they move,” Yamashita said. 

He estimates about 100 families live entirely off the grid, using generators for essentials. Ho’ahu can help these residents get small solar and battery storage systems to supply their energy needs. 

Many of the remainder of Molokai residents are homeowners, who typically are able to get rooftop solar. However, Yamashita said getting a system installed can be cost-prohibitive. 

“It’s so expensive to adopt renewables on Molokai because solar companies have to ship crews and equipment on Molokai so it makes it so much more expensive for us,” he said. “We’re the most vulnerable but we have the least access. Our plan is to support our workforce and rooftop solar on Molokai.”

Going Micro

Microgrids may be the future of renewable energy planning for some communities. Microgrids can be small – for one home, medium sized to serve a group of homes, or larger to provide power to sectors of the island. 

The CERAP is proposing community-scale microgrids that could divide Molokai into districts. 

Four decentralized grids serving Mana’e, Kaunakakai, Ho’olehua and Maunaloa areas could provide greater stability to residents’ electricity. 

“The idea is that each of those [grids] would have the ability to both operate independently if something happened to the connecting wires, and [together] to ship energy to other locations if one of the other ones went down, so it would really help with our frequent loss of grid power,” explained Newman. 

On a smaller scale, Yamashita suggests shared microgrids that could provide power to between two and 50 homes per system as another option. 

Electric transmission accounts for more than 40 percent of the cost of electricity, according to Yamashita, so reducing the distance energy has to travel would save a lot of money. 

Four district CERAP discussions to gather public mana’o will take place over the next two weeks, which will take place in community input with open-house booth formats. 

“The community will need to educate one another with the newest information, problem solve, and stick together despite the inevitable disagreements,” said Aoki. “So far in the CERAP process, I have seen Molokai people rising to face every challenge. If any island has the tenacity, ingenuity, and abundance of aloha necessary to pull this off, it is Molokai.”

How to Get Involved 

Attend an Energy District Discussion to share your mana’o on the Community Energy Resilience Action Plan (CERAP). 

  • Mana’e: Tuesday, Sept. 20 at Kilohana Elementary School Court Side from 4 to 6 p.m. with free dinner. 
  • Kaunakakai: Saturday, Sept. 24 at Molokai Canoe Club from 9 am to 12 p.m. with free snacks. 
  • Maunaloa: Tuesday, Sept. 27 at the park across Molokai Ranch Office from 4 to 6 p.m. with free dinner. 
  • Ho’olehua: Thursday, Sept. 29 at Molokai High School Student Parking Lot from 2 to 5 p.m. with free snacks.
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