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Why Panos Prevedouros left Hawaii

The state is at risk of a major natural catastrophe, he says, and its “suicidal” energy policy will just make everything worse

Hawaii’s policy mandate to go to 100% renewable energy is nothing short of suicidal.

That was the message of Panos Prevedouros, former chairman of the University of Hawaii civil engineering department, who spoke with host Keli’i Akina, president of the Grassroot Institute, on the June 22 episode of “Hawaii Together.”

Described by Akina as “one of Hawaii’s leading public intellectuals,” Prevedouros moved just last year from Honolulu, his home of 31 years, to Reno, Nevada. During his half-hour conversation with Akina, he explained why. Foremost was his concern about Hawaii’s energy policy and its relation to personal safety.

Because of its geographical isolation, he said, Hawaii needs reliable energy. In the event of a natural disaster, for example, Hawaii’s hospitals “must have reliable electricity for 10, 15, 20 days, or however long it takes for the military and other external providers of health assistance to come help a highly populated island like Oahu or Maui.”

Renewable options like wind and solar farms are not highly reliable, he said, especially since they can be totally demolished by the strong hurricane winds. Thus, Hawaii should be making reliability its top priority, even if that means using coal.

In general, Prevedouros said, Hawaii is totally unprepared for a natural disaster.

“I don’t see the [power] plants [or airports] being hardened. … Our harbors are absolutely not prepared to deal with a major surge from a hurricane or a major surge from a tsunami. Our harbors will be a complete mess. There will be cranes and they’re toppled and there will be containers all over the place.”

And when the Navy arrives from San Diego to help, he warned, “there will be nowhere for them to dock. Nobody is preparing plans to have resilience in our harbor.” 

He said the failure of Hawaii’s politicians to prepare better for a disaster is not peculiar to Hawaii.

“That’s a malaise that exists almost everywhere politically, because politicians, really, do not take a 1% to 2% risk very seriously, and plan to invest big money in that. However, unfortunately, bad luck … really catches up with these things, and we really need to protect the population.” 

Prevedouros said aside from his fears for his family’s safety, he left his beloved Hawaii because of a litany of “wrong” policy decisions.

“One wrong decision does not really change the whole picture,” he said. “There were so many wrong decisions, a litany of which, that, actually after that, I said, ‘Enough is enough.’” 

Well known as a critic of the Honolulu rail, Prevedouros said the recent proposal to stop the system a mile or so short of Ala Moana Center is “definitely a step in the right direction, but it’s not enough. They should have had the guts to stop it at Middle Street, and they probably will be forced to do something like that because now we have the other gift: inflation” — which is sure to drive up its construction costs.

To watch the entire conversation, click on the video below. A complete transcript is provided.

6-20-22 Panos Prevedouros with Keli‘i Akina on “Hawaii Together”

Keli’i Akina: I’m your host, Keli’i Akina, president of the Grassroot Institute. 

Hawaii, sadly, is losing some of its greatest talent, as thousands of individuals and families leave the islands every year. At the Grassroot Institute, we’ve chronologged their stories in a series entitled Why we left Hawaii” 

Many people are leaving because of the cost of living, and one of the things we hear most often is the price of housing. Many are also leaving because of government policies, regulations and taxation.

It’s my privilege today to welcome back to ThinkTech Hawaii a dear friend who has been on the program many times in the past. Today’s guest is Dr. Panos Prevedouros, one of Hawaii’s leading public intellectuals. … In October of 2021, he left Honolulu, which has been his home of 31 years for, shall we say, potentially greener pastures.

Panos is the former chairman of the University of Hawaii civil engineering department. He’s an expert and leading critic on the Honolulu rail and other transportation matters. And he’s even run for mayor of Honolulu. That’s been the level of his commitment to build a better Hawaii. 

We welcome Panos to the program again. Panos, all the way from Reno, Nevada, aloha, and welcome back to the program.

Panos Prevedouros: Aloha, Keli’i. Good to be here.

Akina: Well, it’s good to see you. How are you faring up there in Reno?

Prevedouros: So far, so good. We like it. The kids are liking their schools. My daughter is a student at the University of Nevada, Reno. Andmy son is in a private school. He switched from Mid-Pac. He was at the Mid-Pac in Honolulu. And yeah, we’re quite happy that winter wasn’t severe, at least the 2021-2022 winter. So, so far, so good.

Akina: Now, Panos, you lived in Hawaii for 30 years — more — and your spouse is a lifelong resident of the island. What is it that took you away from Hawaii?

Prevedouros: Actually, you know, was quite engaged with the political life and the happenings in Hawaii. And for the last 15 years of the 30, I became increasingly disillusioned, not by the rail. We can talk about the rail, obviously; that was to me a very obvious wrong decision. 

But then one wrong decision does not really change the whole picture. There were so many wrong decisions, a litany of which, that, actually after that, I said, “Enough is enough.” 

What is an example, we’re an island state, and as you know, originally I come from Greece, we have hundreds of islands. We have hundreds of ferries. [In Hawaii,] we established the Superferry and we killed it. 

In my opinion, we have one of the best energy production solutions: geothermal. The Philippines does, Iceland does, the mainland does. 

Actually, literally, where I am right now at home, 15 miles from here, there is a big geothermal plant, an actual plant producing about 60 megawatts, twice the size of the Puna plant and the same company, Ormat.

So that’s a beginning of many of the many, many reasons. And the big umbrella, which is actually, again, the poor energy policy we have, that I believe will affect the long-term health of Hawaii. 

And what scares me, as I raised them [my children] in Pacific Heights, I have seen several hurricanes come for 31 years. Actually, what I should say, for a 100-plus years, Oahu has been so lucky. We have never had a direct hurricane hit. 

But it is a matter of time, of course. It may not have happened this summer, but it may happen a thousand years from now. We never know. We are not prepared.

As an engineer, I have seen the situation on Oahu and I’m quite scared about the lack of preparation dealing with it, and what is that going to mean for the health and well-being of our residents? If a major natural disaster or something like what happened in Kauai, copy-paste it to Oahu. My God, the consequences can be tremendous.

Akina: Well, you have gone through quite a litany of public policy decisions that you evaluate as not being optimal and having great harm upon the people. What is at the root of all of this? Is this a case of people in power trying to do evil? Or is there some deeper issue really at stake? 

Why is it, in your opinion, that Hawaii over and over makes bad decisions when it comes to public policy issues that affect the masses?

Prevedouros: I think the types of politics we have is not amenable to a technocratic solution. Clearly both of the parties are not really particularly technocratic. But particularly, when you turn leaning towards the left, technology solutions are not seen as — particularly, when they’re more individual in nature, such as tall roads versus rail. 

In the area of energy, thanks to Al Gore and that type of thinking which is in many ways appropriate there are climate issues that we need to address. However, Hawaii is so tiny and so small that it needs to have an energy policy that is reliable because, unlike where I am now in Nevada, that we can connect to Utah or California in case of emergency and get some extra power, there is no such connection for Hawaii. 

So again, if a hurricane happens, if another emergency happens, our energy supply has to be of that of the name of high reliability. And we all know that wind and solar are not highly reliable systems, particularly under adverse weather conditions. And our mandate is to go 100% renewable. I cannot think of a more suicidal decision than that.

Akina: We often hear the word “sustainable” sustainable energy, energy from the sun, energy from the wind, energy from the ocean. But you’re using a word that doesn’t appear in the media very often, or it doesn’t come from the lips of our public policymakers, which is reliable. And obviously, there’s some tension there between sustainable energy and reliable energy. 

How do we resolve that tension? Certainly, there are virtues to pursuing sustainable energy. But we also need the pragmatism of having a reliable energy source, according to the kinds of things that you’ve just cited. How do you resolve that tension?

Prevedouros: In fact, you know, to the credit of Gov. [David] Ige, several times I mentioned these targets, and he said that, well, we’re going to look for them if they are reliable. 

However, the rest of the politicians there did not understand his engineering conservativism and the fact that reliability should be the No. 1 priority. Like in transportation, safety is the No, 1 priority.

Same thing in reliability. Our hospitals need to have reliable electricity for 10, 15, 20 days, whatever it takes for the military and external health to come help Oahu or Maui, both highly populated islands, if a major disaster happens in the form of tremendous inundation of power plants from a tsunami or a major hurricane here, etc. 

So I don’t see this preparation. I don’t see the plants being hardened. They are talking about, you know, dismantling the whole plant. 

Clearly on the earth, if you are China, if you’re India, if you are the U.S. mainland, yes, we need to start phasing out of coal. But Hawaii needs a reliable base load. And if coal is affordable, I mean, yes, you have to turn a blind eye, and put reliability No. 1, and maintain coal as a way of having reliable electricity, instead of doing a solar farm or a wind farm that actually could be almost totally destroyed by strong winds.

So it’s not only that you have it and then the batteries are not going to last more than 10 hours. The actual plant, because of the way that it’s made, will collapse and then we’re not going to have the energy we need to provide for the health and safety of our population.

Akina: It sounds as though you’re saying our government leaders have not been responsible in ensuring the welfare of the public, as we go forward, in terms of the safety of the island.

Prevedouros: That’s right. That’s correct.

Akina: Well, that’s a significant charge. Is that one of the reasons that motivated you to leave?

Prevedouros: Oh, absolutely. Between the combination of wrong energy decisions, combined with the risk of a major natural disaster in Hawaii, it’s a big threat. For me I saw risk and they don’t try to mitigate it. So when you don’t mitigate risk, eventually it might hit you and that hit may be, you know, terrible.

Akina: Well, that’s very interesting. You left the islands in part out of concern for the safety of your family.

Prevedouros: That’s correct. That is correct and serial decisions were going in the wrong direction all of the time. Even as I mentioned, the Superferry is actually, particularly if we had two or three or four of them, it is a vehicle of reliability because, well, Hawaii is a small place. 

It’s the various islands we have. Well, like it happened in the past, we’re probably going to be lucky enough when we are unlucky to have a hurricane that only one island will be hit. The others will be nice and healthy.

Well, if you had a healthy ferry system, then the outer islands or whatever, the healthy island would help the sick island. It’s actually reliability and an alternative mass transportation means. It could quickly go to the mainland and bring critical supplies along with military ships itself. 

One evidence of government doing nothing is our harbors. Our harbors are absolutely not prepared to deal with a major surge from a hurricane or a major surge from a tsunami. Our harbors will be a complete mess. There will be cranes and they’re toppled and there will be containers all over the place.

So when the Navy arrives and ready to help after a couple of weeks from San Diego, there will be nowhere for them to dock to come and help. Nobody is preparing plans to have resilience in our harbor. 

Similar things about the airport, very basic things. They are doing the basics. They have the telephone calls and all that. But really, what needs to be done is not done. 

I talked with several folks from Guam. I mean the level of preparation of Guam and the level of preparation of Hawaii is, like, one is at 1, and the other is at 10. We need to get a lot of lessons from elsewhere, and we’re not getting them. We’re not investing in minimizing the risk of natural disasters in Hawaii.

Akina: It would seem logical that we would be concerned about natural disasters here in Hawaii. We are the most isolated island archipelago on the planet. We have special assets, of course the beauty of the land, the ocean, the people but we also have certain liabilities that you don’t have elsewhere on the planet. 

Why is it that our government leaders are not focused on this as an issue? What’s going on in our political system that prevents the kind of focus that is necessary for the safety of the people?

Prevedouros: Well, that’s a malaise that exists almost everywhere politically, because politicians, really, do not take a 1% to 2% risk very seriously, and plan to invest big money in that. However, unfortunately, bad luck there really catches up with these things, and we really need to protect the population. 

Obviously, we cannot overinvest in a wall, and put a giant wall around Oahu, etc. But prudent preparation needs to be made, and hardening of the harbors, for example, and the airport should exist. What we have is extremely basic. An additional level of investment has to be there.

We need to have significant retrofitting inspections of our houses, because we cannot even what do you call it? evacuate. In the mainland, when you have a threat, you evacuate. You take your car, you take big buses, what have you, the rail, you evacuate. You leave the area where the disaster is happening, like it happened at Yellowstone a week ago. The population was evacuated. You cannot evacuate Hawaii. It’s a very special situation. 

It’s like a fire on a ship. Typically, the population on earth, when there is a fire, goes away from the fire. On a ship, when there is a fire, everybody goes onto the fire to get it out, because it’s going to sink the ship. That’s what it is. 

In Hawaii, the conditions are so special and we keep talking about the special situation we have in Hawaii. But the politics are very, very, you know, mainland style. The level of risk is not the same. 

We really need to adapt our politics and our priorities to the fragile situation we have in Hawaii. The risk is small, but it’s not zero. And there is no redundancy at all because there is nobody around.

Akina: When you were in Hawaii, one of the issues about which you were the most vocal is the Honolulu rail. And we have done programs on this issue and talked about it quite a bit.

Prevedouros: That’s right.

Akina: I’m not so much interested in going through all of that right now. I want to ask you something very specific. In light of what you have just been saying about Hawaii’s lack of preparation for potential catastrophic disaster, how does that factor into the rail and its future construction and operation?

Prevedouros: That’s an excellent question. And I should tell our audience, I never send you questions or anything, because you hit it spot on. And actually, the both times that I ran for mayor 2008 and 2010 I did have a bullet addressing that question. What is the difference between the rail and the reversible high occupancy and toll lanes? Twenty miles of rail versus 10 miles of what I was proposing, the reversible high-occupancy and toll lane.

Well, in case of a disaster, the high-occupancy toll lanes immediately can serve as a backbone for emergency services to reach the various places in Oahu, from central Honolulu, all the way to central Oahu and beyond. 

With the rail, well, every hurricane we had in Florida and Texas, the rail systems either they did OK, but in the majority they shut down for several days or weeks. So instead of being an asset in the community, there was actually a liability because they had to spend significant resources to shore it up and make it back operational.

A reversible elevated highway would have no problem at all. It’s just a concrete bridge on which ambulances and bulldozers and trailers and trucks, that they were sent by the government or the military to provide cleanup services and what have you, they would’ve been a major asset in dealing with a disaster. Again, another wrong decision that would have helped. 

Both the rail and the Superferry the Superferries, of course, are a good alternative, as I said, for supplying islands, etc., but it doesn’t exist anymore. The rail is going to be a dead asset in case of an emergency.

Remember, of course, if you have an issue that one or more power plants are down, what is going to be your priority? Run the new rail? No, run your hospitals. Run your traffic signals, the basic health and safety infrastructure that we need. And the rail will have to languish for weeks until electricity is back up.

Akina: Well, let’s switch back to what we talked about earlier on, your own exodus out of Hawaii.

Prevedouros: Right.

Akina: Do you feel safer now, Panos, you and your family?

Prevedouros: Yes. There is risk everywhere, right? The last summer we got, well, somewhat of a scare because California had two of its largest historical fires. They really didn’t come close to Nevada, but we had a lot of smoke and a lot of pollution, and it hit home, you know, because this is a forested area. Lake Tahoe is on the forest. 

Unfortunately, because of the drying up of the area and the aridity and the lack of water and precipitation, there is significant risk for fires, not necessarily in my backyard but in the general area.

And, of course, we’re not too far from Yellowstone. There is earthquakes and there is volcanic activity. As we said, there is risk everywhere. But there is so much redundancy here. 

If you receive a threat — and it goes with Hawaii, too — Hawaii is congested. If you tried to evacuate, we had a tsunami and people tried to evacuate out of Waikiki and the gridlock was unbelievable. People literally got stuck in their cars for an hour and couldn’t get off of Kapahulu or off of Kalakaua. 

Here, the roads do work. There is a sufficient number of lanes for the population and the road network works. The level of congestion is tolerable to low, so that’s actually quite pleasant.

Akina: Panos, how about your quality of life, now that you live in Reno, Nevada? What are you experiencing in terms of prices, access to commodities, the ability to establish the lifestyle that you want and so forth?

Prevedouros: In this respect, the difference is very significant. Particularly in a few places like Nevada and Texas, for example, come to mind, we don’t have income tax at all. So we don’t lose that 10% off of our income. But then the commodities are much more affordable. 

I was joking with a friend on Facebook that she went to Safeway and got corn at the price that she mentioned, and it was such a great sale to hear. And this is the standard price in Nevada, it’s not a sale. That’s the same price for the item.

Not only the items are cheaper, but particularly for food items and basic clothing, the tax is zero. You don’t have a sales tax. So these things begin to pile up. You save on income taxes, on services and, of course, the shipping charges and the quickness. 

Well, we’re particularly blessed here in [Nevada] because Amazon has a lot of warehouses. In fact, it is possible on a few items to receive them same day or in the morning of the next day. 

This is unheard of in Hawaii. While I was always a good shopper on Amazon and, well, you’d have to wait sometimes up to a week in Hawaii and pay shipping charges even if you’re a Prime member, if the item is very big or it doesn’t ship to Hawaii. I have no such limitation here. So these things accumulate. 

And of course, in Hawaii, if you want to travel, see the world, well, airline tickets are pretty expensive. So from here, where I am in my household, to our beloved destination for Hawaii people, Las Vegas, well, my wife and I just take the car and we share three hours of driving each, and 150 bucks in gasoline, and we’re in Las Vegas. And we have a car to boot, so we don’t even have to rent a car. 

So there are things like that. Obviously, I’m very blessed.

Akina: Well, as you know in Hawaii, a lot of people are finding it difficult to afford the housing that they need, whether it’s in the rental market or purchasing a home. Talk to me a bit about the housing market where you are.

Prevedouros: I’m in a place that it’s actually probably worse than Hawaii, that’s surprising very much. Reno is a very strange place strange is not probably the right word but we are neighbors to San Francisco. San Francisco, as you know, along with a few other spots in the U.S. and Honolulu, are among the most expensive. 

And the problem with San Francisco is that those guys are 4 to 5 million people. Even if 1% to 2% of them decide to leave, it’s a lot of people. 

So we actually had a very hard time in finding not only finding a home, but purchasing because, just throw out some numbers to make an offer, $800,000 with 50% cash and what have you. Here comes the Californian, $900,000 cash.

So essentially, all the time we kept losing houses under our nose with substantial cash offers from the white affluent folks in San Francisco and other places. Reno is a desirable area, etc., so we had significant, significant difficulty and the prices are not low.

So a decent house, similar to the one I had in Hawaii, let’s throw out some numbers; that house was $1.4 million, the same house here will be $1.1 to $1.2 million, so it is in the same bracket. This place is not like Florida and some places in Texas where half a million dollars goes a long way. Half a million dollars here does not buy anything really.

Akina: Well, not everybody leaving Hawaii is moving to Reno. 

Prevedouros: No, they’re going to Henderson. Henderson is very affordable. That’s outside Las Vegas. That’s a bargain for real estate.

Akina: So there’s the access on the mainland to housing that fits one’s budget.

Prevedouros: Oh, very much. Very much, yes. There are so many places, right? I mean, it’s not only Henderson, the whole United States, the whole South is quite affordable. Phoenix is very affordable, quite a few places in Florida. And I’m talking about places with similar climates too. Montana is affordable, but it’s very hard probably for a Hawaii person to move to Montana.

Akina: Well, people are definitely looking at their pocketbooks and they’re voting with their feet. Since 2016, 22,000 people have left the Hawaiian islands. These are locals who otherwise would be here were it not for concerns over the cost of living for the most part. 

What is the impact of such growing numbers leaving the islands? In what way does that impact life in Hawaii?

Prevedouros: It is very deleterious, it’s very negative. Obviously, we have the problem that it’s almost nationwide that we have a labor shortage. So if you have people moving out, your shortage becomes even worse. 

But then there are certain professions, particularly out of those 22,000 people, quite a few of them, if they’re skilled construction workers, if they’re nurses, if they’re teachers, my goodness, that is very, very deleterious for society. Because, you know, people who contribute and they have significant and key jobs, you lose them, and then it’s very hard to replace them.

Akina: We’ve talked about a lot today. and I didn’t want to talk only about the rail, because you have so much more to offer in terms of your insights and observations. But I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you just a few questions, if you don’t mind, before we leave. 

Prevedouros: Sure. 

Akina: As a prominent critic of the rail, you made it clear that you were not happy with what you saw. What were your thoughts about the plan to stop short of Ala Moana for the purpose of saving on cost?

Prevedouros: It’s definitely a step in the right direction, but it’s not enough. They should have had the guts to stop it at Middle Street, and they probably will be forced to do something like that, because now we have the other gift: inflation. 

When we budgeted $1 billion for construction, well, that was a year ago. It’s probably $1.2 billion already and climbing. They will not be able to go close to downtown, although I know Mayor Blangiardi really wants to go as far as Kākāʻako or even finish the line.

Unfortunately, international events and particularly the cost of energy have made construction now very expensive. And they really– I mean, Honolulu — for the sake of the budget, they need to cut their losses and try to finish the rail around Middle Street, for, you know, saving the budget and start operating the system so people, after paying all these years, they can start having some rail service to use.

Akina: You know, Panos, one of the crucial assumptions behind making the rail project work has been that people will actually ride it, but you’ve seen what has happened to the projections for ridership. They’ve fallen in from 2015 at 119,000 weekly to the projection of 84,000 weekly now, and the numbers continue to go down. What do you think about these projections?

Prevedouros: I think, like their cost estimates, they’re optimistic. I have a blog post that I posted several years ago estimating that, if they open the original line as they established it, they would get about 50,000 to 60,000 riders. 

That’s the unfortunate thing: that eventually our city, the city of Honolulu will pay $12 billion and then serve only 50,000 to 60,000 trips a day. What can I tell you? Lose-lose.

Akina: Well, what do we do now? We drive around the island. We see the structures of the rail lines. We’re pretty vested in the project and so forth. What counsel would you give to our political leaders at this stage as to what to do with regard to the rail?

Prevedouros: Well, the best thing as I mentioned is to– actually, Gov. Ige had a pretty brilliant idea of using the “O triple C” [Oahu Community Correctional Center], the prison we have. It’s a superblock, and the prison we have, the jail there, it’s very outdated. It has a lot of issues. 

So relocating it somewhere and using that superblock for revitalizing part of Kalihi, that area can use  … actually, the first floor could become a good intermodal center with the rail stopping there. So then it becomes a good working system. 

And then start focusing finally on congestion. Oahu is very congested, so they need to work on solutions for actual congestion relief.

Akina: Yes. Well, we’ve got about a minute left, Panos. And I’d love if you would just address our audience, talk to the individual here, the person in Hawaii who’s struggling with the cost of living, who is thinking about possibly leaving. Any word that you have for the average person here in our state?

Prevedouros: In my opinion, they shouldn’t rush the decision one way or another. It took me two to three years to do it correctly. I mean, we did it but it wasn’t a rush decision. It was a deliberate decision. It’s not an easy move. 

They need to find alternative situations, locations, spend time to research, in their family and themselves if they will be happy there and employed, or they will have enough income to sustain themselves in the new location.

So rash decisions for this type of leaving Hawaii traveling away 2,000 miles, spending all this time and money on the move, and then the new location is not working out that would be terrible for the individual. 

So please, spend enough time thinking, asking the right questions and investigating if the new location is appropriate. 

Because, for better or worse, Hawaii’s a beautiful place and it can work. But if it’s not working, the next choice has to be a wise one and not one that was done on a whim. Because likely, it’s going to go from one difficult situation to another difficult situation.

Akina: Panos, thank you very much for those words of wisdom. Thank you for being on the interview today. We miss you here in Hawaii, but through the wonders of telecommunication, we’re in touch quite frequently. Much aloha.

Prevedouros: Aloha to you too, and many thanks.

Akina: My guest today has been Panos Prevedouros, truly an intellectual who speaks on behalf of the public. We’re glad that he was able to join us. Until next time, I’m Keli‘i Akina on the ThinkTech Hawaii program, “Hawaii Together.” Aloha.

 

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