Molokai’s Renewable Energy Future Looks Bright
By Catherine Cluett Pactol | Reporter
Molokai has completed its roadmap to take the island to 100 percent renewable energy. It’s the result of a community-driven planning process that energy officials call the first of its kind. Led by the Molokai Clean Energy Hui, residents are now poised to take the next steps in bringing their plans to reality.
“All of the renewable energy we have [currently], which is about 14 percent, comes from 500 or so rooftop systems on homes and businesses,” said Leilani Chow. She’s energy coordinator at Sust’ainable Molokai, which has spearheaded the Molokai Clean Energy Hui. “And [up until now] everything else has kind of been rejected by the community because these projects were designed and proposed by off island groups that were just severely misaligned with community values and lifestyle.”
The remainder of Molokai’s energy consumption comes from diesel generators at Hawaiian Electric’s Pala’au power plant. But that’s about to change.
After saying “no” to many proposed renewable energy projects in the past, Molokai has found something to which to say a resounding “yes” – a series of 10 projects designed by residents themselves.
The Molokai Clean Energy Hui has led the development of the Molokai Community Energy Resilience Action Plan, or CERAP. The comprehensive, island-wide plan is now garnering the attention of energy officials and communities around the state as a model for community-led planning.
All 10 of the plan’s proposed projects have been picked up for state and federal support.
Breaking a History of ‘No’
“Molokai has had decades of community advocacy for energy needs. A lot of that advocacy looked like opposition to all of the projects that have been proposed,” said Chow.
She’s the 30-year-old mother of two from Molokai who has been a leader in the island’s renewable energy advocacy.
“In 2020, the Molokai Clean Energy Hui formed, inspired by all these decades of community advocacy, but instead of being formed in opposition of a project, we’re trying to be more proactive,” she added.
Instead of the electric utility or a development company proposing projects to the community — as had been done in the past — Chow and others launched a community-based process.
“That just kick started our whole CERAP process, which is community led, community driven, community initiated, renewable energy planning,” she said.
In 2021, one of the first steps the Clean Energy Hui took was to make a big request to the Public Utilities Commission, the state entity which regulates Hawaiian Electric and other utilities. They asked the PUC to temporarily suspend a procurement and planning docket related to energy development on Molokai.
“They said yes, which was kind of crazy and unprecedented,” said Chow.
“And we did that… to allow this planning process to happen,” said Mike Wallerstein, Commission Counsel for the PUC. “So for almost two years, the Commission was basically not involved at all, other than letting the process happen.”
It’s a process, Wallerstein said, that’s been rather remarkable.
“It’s the first of its kind, certainly in this state and as far as I know, in the country, of a community leading the electricity planning process. It’s almost always led by a utility and overseen by a commission,” he explained. “But this is very different, so it’s very interesting to see what the community did when they were in charge of the planning.”
Over the next two years, the Clean Energy Hui worked feverishly to complete the CERAP.
Hui volunteers held nearly 3,000 community conversations, collected 700 surveys, and conducted more than 30 focus group workshops and 17 community events. They educated themselves on renewable energy options and processes, gathered community feedback, and incorporated it all into a comprehensive, island-wide energy plan. They partnered with University of Hawaii’s Hawaii Natural Energy Institute for technical assistance and value analyses, as well as worked with Hawaiian Electric and other Molokai energy organizations.
One of those is Ho’ahu Energy Cooperative Molokai, which has two community solar projects that will provide about 20 percent of the island’s daily energy generation in the near future. Ho’ahu has also been leading an effort to train solar technicians on island so there is a group of Molokai residents ready to do installation work on upcoming projects.
Phase one of the CERAP process wrapped up over the summer and the Clean Energy Hui submitted the plan to the PUC. Last month, they updated commissioners and energy officials in a status conference, which highlighted their work so far and opened a continued dialogue with the PUC, Hawaiian Electric and other officials to discuss the next steps in the process.
The CERAP includes a portfolio of energy projects across the island, tailored to meet Molokai’s needs and vetted by the community. The projects focus on increasing the island’s emergency preparedness by strategically decentralizing energy generation and strengthening critical infrastructure. Each project was also designed to ensure safe and reliable energy resilience for the community through innovative technology and interconnection configurations, support the regenerative management of Molokai’s resources, and provide equitable and economically feasible renewable energy access for all.
Two federal Dept. of Energy grants will support the next steps of the effort. The Energy Transition Initiative Partnership Project will provide expert technical support to explore specific projects over the next year. Another program, Clean Energy to Communities, will support planning and implantation phases for Molokai energy projects over the next three years.
Along with solar projects, these programs will be exploring other options like floating solar on the Kualapu’u Reservoir’s 95 acres of surface area, and a potential pumped hydroelectric energy storage project.
The funds will help learn more about the technical feasibility and trade-offs of the projects, and Chow says “the decision making piece is still very much in the hands of the community” about whether or not to move forward with each option.
Those 10 projects include a variety of locations and goals island-wide. One priority identified is onsite renewable energy and energy storage systems for critical infrastructure island-wide. The community identified at least 40 buildings and utilities that provide Molokai’s critical services. Currently all of these are reliant on diesel powered energy from the Pala’au power plant but the CERAP calls to change that, providing the ability to continue to operate emergency response and critical services during most scenarios of disruption.
“Since everything that’s happened on Maui in the last months… everything that the [Molokai] community had said was our top choice is now becoming a top priority everywhere, and these are the best ways to secure your energy infrastructure and ensure that the community doesn’t lose their power or could potentially prevent a major disaster,” said Chow. “This is another place where CERAP kind of exemplifies how community-led planning is already thinking about disaster preparedness and resilience in ways that are not typically thought of by the utility and regulators.”
The second project is Ho’ahu’s Community-based renewable energy (CBRE) solar farms to especially benefit those who can’t have their own rooftop solar. Two projects will be located at Pala’au and Kualapu’u, and the Clean Energy Hui has requested the PUC fast track these projects to move forward so Ho’ahu can meet some of its financial deadlines to make the projects more affordable.
Other projects slated for exploration are community-scale solar for west Molokai, exploring renewable energy projects that specifically support homesteading, individual household renewable energy for on- and off-grid options, an in-depth renewable energy study for the east end, and an analysis of electric vehicle use on Molokai.
Finally, the CERAP calls for exploration of firm energy options for the last 10 to 20 percent of the island’s energy usage to bring Molokai to 100 percent. Firm energy sources are available at all times, controllable and reliable – as opposed to solar or wind energy that is variable depending on weather conditions. Firm energy could come from bioenergy, hydroelectric energy or geothermal energy – and is required on the grid to fill in the gaps when needed for reliability.
Statewide, Hawaii has set a goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2045. Will Molokai be the first island to reach that threshold? There’s a good possibility.
“We’re way ahead of the game,” said Chow. “The rest of the communities… [are] still trying to figure out what they want. The Molokai community has already written [and] submitted exactly what we want with choke details…. So we’re setting ourselves up for success and expediting certain things, and I think that if we continue to heavily invest in community education and involvement to get consensus and support for these projects, that will just continue to fast track us to 100 percent.”
The process has also shown other communities what’s possible.
“It represents that community is able to become energy experts and has the competency and eagerness to take on this kind of planning,” Chow said. “This is showing that community-led processes like this are extremely successful and the results — the projects that were proposed — were win-win for everybody. We’re helping HECO on the PUC to do their job — which is to make decisions that are in the best public interest — and we’re helping ourselves by making sure that these projects support us in exactly the ways that we need.”
She said Molokai’s process and CERAP document could also be used as a guide for community energy planning statewide.
“There’s been a lot of interest from communities who have been trying to also crack the code and figure out what’s the secret sauce to getting their voices heard,” Chow added. “This is a pathway and a template for them to cherry pick and adapt to fit their community.”