Concern builds that Hawaii energy goals not realistic

Hawaii’s plans to switch to 100% renewable energy by 2045 might cause more harm than good, according to Joe Kent, executive vice president of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii.

Speaking with H. Hawaii Media radio host Johnny Miro on Sunday, Kent expressed concern that the attempted shift towards a new energy system is happening “without much critical thought behind it.” 

He said proponents of the renewable energy mandate claim the shift will save money, but those projections assume that oil prices will increase in the future, and considering the increased global demand for green energy, it could be renewable prices that increase instead. 

Regarding reliability, Kent noted that wind and solar are not always consistent, and require significant battery storage capacity. For example, the Kapolei battery station on Oahu cost about $500 million to build but can power the island for only less than an hour.  

“At that rate, we’d need billions — maybe $10 billion — just for the battery storage in case there were two cloudy days over the island,” he said. 

Other renewable energy options under consideration are geothermal energy from volcanoes and biofuels. Kent said both can supply power on a 24/7 basis, but biofuels power involves the burning of trees, which many environmentalists don’t like, plus it costs twice as much as oil to produce. 

He said geothermal has been around for decades and works for Hawaii Island, but its not a “silver bullet” for the entire state. 

Kent said nuclear power may be a viable energy source, but is politically unrealistic. 

“[T]here must be some sort of equation in renewable energy that the more feasible something is, the less politically popular it is,” he remarked. 

Kent said that given Hawaii’s already high cost of living, he is “worried that the switch to 100% renewables could spell even higher costs for residents.” 

“[I]t’s one thing to … put well-meaning goals out there, but it’s another thing to pay for it,” he said. “If this is the new way forward, then we need to assess the risks diligently.”

To hear the entire interview, click on the image below. A complete transcript follows.

7-7-23 Joe Kent with host Johnny Miro of the H. Hawaii Media radio network

Johnny Miro: Good Sunday morning to you. It’s time for our public access programming here on H. Hawaii Media’s five Oahu radio stations. I’m Johnny Miro. We’re here at 101.1 FM, 101.5 FM, 97.1 FM, 107.5 FM and 96.7 FM.

And the topic today is, well, trade-offs in energy policy as Hawaii plans to switch to 100% green energy — and that’s by the year 2045, all right? 

Is the goal feasible? That’s a huge question. What are the costs, and what are its benefits? 

So, to explain all that in as great of detail as possible, it’ll be Joe Kent, executive vice president of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii. He’s here to discuss these questions. 

Good Sunday morning to you, Joe.

Joe Kent: Good morning to you, too, Johnny. Thanks for having me on your show.

Miro: Once again, looking forward to all that great information that you usually bring forward here. 

A bit of a background. Can you give me a bit of a background on the state’s renewable energy goals at this time?

Kent: Yeah, sure. So the state of Hawaii, the Legislature and the governor have enacted requirements that Hawaii move to 100% renewable energy by the year 2045. And, you know, that includes switching our coal plants off and our oil generator, our fossil fuel plants off, and, you know, ramping up solar and wind and geothermal and all other forms of renewable. 

And this has all come on a slate of different regulations. That’s not the only one; there’s others. We’re going to have all electric vehicles in the state’s fleet, and so on — light-duty vehicles and things.

And so this is a huge goal and a huge undertaking. And I’m just trying to calculate what the costs will be, which apparently are hard to find.

Miro: OK. So in your opinion, what is the rationale behind them — these energy goals?

Kent: Well, the rationale is that it could save money. I mean, if you look at Act 97 — which is the 100% renewable goal — it says that it’s switching to save money. It says that Hawaii’s dependency on imported fuel drains the state’s economy of billions of dollars each year and switching to renewables would help strengthen our economy. 

And other acts along those lines have said that, you know, we’re going to save on costs by switching away from fuel.

But I’m not sure if that’s the case. I mean, first of all, it’s hard to predict the cost of anything in the future, let alone oil and renewable energies.

Miro: Exactly. So, where does the state get its electricity from right now?

Kent: Well, right now about 68% of the state’s energy make-up is from fossil fuels, that’s mostly oil; 20% from solar; 6% from wind; 2% from geothermal; and 4% from hydro. 

So the vast majority right now of our electricity generation is from fossil fuels. But in Hawaiian Electric’s [HECO] new plan, they are proposing ramping down fossil fuels to only 30% — down from 68% — and ramping up solar to 68%. So that’s a huge ramp-up in solar energy.

Interesting that they’re not really taking on wind as part of that mix. Wind power only ramps up by a fraction or two, but solar is apparently where it’s at. 

I think wind has kind of fallen into disfavor by environmental activists. I mean, they tried to do a wind project up in Kahuku on Oahu a few years ago, and it was environmental activists who protested against that. And that’s the comment that HECO’s getting, is apparently, wind is not very popular. 

So solar, I guess, is going to be the path forward.

Miro: What about the offshore wind projects? Have those also kind of died away? I haven’t heard much talk about them.

Kent: Yes. The offshore wind projects are also falling into disfavor and make up a very small fraction of HECO’s plan. In fact, in some instances of HECO’s plan, there is no offshore wind by 2030. 

And so that means solar is the focus. But, you know, solar isn’t so environmentally friendly either. I mean, if you look at how much land is required for solar … it’s hard to build houses on Oahu, let alone solar farms. And, you know, we can’t even get our actual farms to work. 

And so this whole renewable energy question is being exported onto our land, and so it’s really a question of, “How much land do we want to use for renewable energy?”

Miro: And another thing — just to stay on the topic — is, how about the recycling of the older product, the blades from the windmills and the solar panels? Have they thought about that?

Kent: That’s right. Recycling is a huge environmental undertaking. You have to dig into the ground and you have to transport these blades. And the solar panels, trying to dispose of those over many years can be an undertaking. Not to mention, also, digging up the minerals required to produce those things. 

So, renewable energy sometimes looks really clean when you see it, but what you’re not seeing is all of the environmental effects of this behind the scene.

Miro: Hawaii plans to switch to 100% green energy by the year 2045. Joe Kent, executive vice president of Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, is here to discuss some questions, and he’ll provide some knowledge and some answers to the questions. 

How much could the renewable energy mandate costs, in your opinion, and will electricity rates increase to pay for it?

Kent: Well, Hawaii has the most expensive energy bills in the nation right now. And, of course, we also have the highest cost of living. People are leaving the state because of this. And I’m worried that the switch to 100% renewables could spell even higher costs for residents.

You know, it’s funny that the bills that require this all talk about saving money. And if you look at HECO’s projections — this is Hawaiian Electric Co. — put out a thousand-page study — I know, right? A thousand pages. It’s a lot to read — and buried in that study, it shows that if we switch to 100% renewable energy, it will save about triple the cost than if we stay the same. So we’ll see triple the savings on our electric bills. 

But actually, there’s a footnote on that figure because if you really dig into how they got to that, they are assuming that oil prices will triple in the future.

And so, yes, if oil prices triple in the future, then your electric bill could triple. You know, that’s true. But that’s a big “if” though, because what if renewable prices go up in the future? 

You know, we are seeing across the world that governments, nations are putting in their own renewable energy goals — sometimes 100% renewable energy. So we’ve never had a moment in history where so many governments and so many people around the world are shifting away towards renewable energy, and that’s going to increase the demand.

And, of course, economics goes, “If the demand goes up and the supply stays the same, the price goes up.” So it’s very feasible in the future to see oil prices going down and renewable prices going up. And if that happens, then our electric bills are going up.

Miro: And aren’t wind and solar, though, right now, and other renewables cheaper than oil?

Kent: Yes. Wind and solar can be very cheaper in certain instances, but that’s if you just look at a fraction of the cost and a fraction of the picture. Remember that wind and solar are not reliable. They’re intermittent. We have to wait for the wind to blow or the sun to shine and then we can use them. 

And in those instances when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing, yes, they’re cheaper. But if you look at the total cost, including the reliability of it, then oil is a huge cost savings. 

And so, you know, you need batteries to store all of these intermittent renewable energies, and the batteries have a huge cost to them.

Miro: And you just kind of answered the next question: If the plan relies so much on wind and solar, how will the islands deal with those series of cloudy or windless days? 

I mean, we just heard about the public school system. The DOE [Department of Education] spent that money and they said, “Yeah, we only have about four and a half hours of usage of sunlight for these classrooms,” or whatever it was. But it wasn’t reliable. It wasn’t always there, so to speak. 

So will the grid still be reliable as we just closed the last coal-burning plant? Do you think that that might have been premature?

Kent: Yeah, so that reliability question is key. I mean, the schools, as you note, had their own goal of putting air conditioning in all the classrooms, right? You remember that? The kids were subject to very hot and humid classrooms. They couldn’t even focus on their work. And it was a really big issue during the [Gov. David] Ige administration era. And so he had this goal of putting ACs in all the classrooms. 

The problem is, we also had this goal of renewable energy. And so when they were trying to put the air conditioning in, many of the air-conditioning systems were coupled with renewable air-conditioning systems, trying to update their grid to allow for a renewable system. And that increased the cost, sometimes double or triple what a regular AC would’ve cost. And so that made the cost increase, of course, already. 

But if you look at what it takes to build a battery that can take in all of this wind and solar, the Kapolei battery station on Oahu cost about $500 million. And, OK, that’s impressive, but it can only power the island for less than an hour. So, you know, we’re talking about enough battery power to last for probably less than 40 minutes — and it was half a billion dollars. 

So, at that rate, we’d need billions — maybe $10 billion — just for the battery storage in case there were two cloudy days over the island. 

Miro: Wow.

Kent: So these systems are not reliable. Even proponents of the systems acknowledge that this is their Achilles heel. 

So, what they’ve done to try to counteract that is to find different types of energy storage systems. Like on Kauai, for example, they actually pump water up to this sort of reservoir on the mountain, and then it goes down and spins a turbine. And that’s a natural battery, if you will. You know, they’re pumping water and using that as the battery. 

That’s a really creative solution, and it works really well on Kauai, but that’s because Kauai has a very small population and a relatively large amount of land. 

On Oahu, it’s the opposite; we have a huge population and not much land. We are land-constrained. So those types of creative solutions will not work here. 

So, yes, the battery question is the key question for renewables.

Miro: And then you have Joe Kent joining us from the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii. The vice president of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii. 

On the Big Island — Hawaii island — you have the biodiesel or geothermal. What about those two options? I think biodiesel is burning wood and then geothermal from the availability of the volcano, the energy from that. Are there any renewables that could provide 24/7 power?

Kent: Oh, yes. So biofuels are interesting. That is also falling out of political favorability. These are things like burning trees or plants or wood pellets for power. And it could be a promising alternative. I mean, for renewable proponents, this is their solution to the firm power that’s needed to counteract the intermittent power. So biodiesel, you can burn at night. That’s great.

The problem is: You’re burning trees [laughs]. And it kind of is ironic for people who are trying to help the environment, that we now need all these trees to burn in order to accomplish this. And plus, biodiesel is kind of an inefficient way of reproducing what we already have, which is oil. I mean, the cost to produce biodiesel is twice the price of gasoline. So, it has a huge cost with it.

Now, geothermal, on the other hand, is very promising. There is a geothermal plant on the Big Island. I think it provides about 30% of that island’s power. And I actually went and toured the geothermal plant there. 

Very interesting that there, you know, we have this natural source of energy in Hawaii, which is the volcano. And it’s a very old technology. I think it was like the ’70s or ’80s that they installed it. It’s still working very, very efficiently. 

And so that would definitely be an option, but not for the whole state. I mean, you can’t get geothermal on Oahu. You might be able to get it on Maui, but it’s not the silver bullet.

Miro: OK. So, no 24/7 power right now with either of those two. 

What are the challenges that other states are facing and countries encountering with their renewable energy mandates? I hear of some countries — I think Germany might have been one and maybe one of the Scandinavian countries — they reporterdly brought back what they shut down, not in a full scale, but just to assist with the burden that was put on these renewables when they went to the clean energy.

Kent: Yeah, that’s right. So Sweden actually has a 100% renewable goal that they’ve now abandoned. The Swedish officials abandoned this because it’s just not feasible. They said: “We need more energy production. We need clean electricity, and we need a stable energy system,” according to their finance minister. But they couldn’t reach that with the 100% renewable.

And I think it was because of this firm-power question: What are you going to do when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine? You know, we still need power somehow. And so it just was unrealistic for them to reach that. 

I think that is a similar thing that’s going to happen with all of these states and nation-states, is to come to the realization that the solution to the renewable energy problem might be worse than the problem itself in some cases.

If we can accept that in order to save costs, we may need to back away from the renewable energy goal, that might help save on the cost of living. But otherwise, we might see more people leaving the state as their energy bills jack up. 

You know, like I said, we’re already the most expensive — sometimes double the costs on the mainland — for our energy bills. But is that going to be triple, quadruple? At some point, it’s just too expensive. 

And so that’s basically what I am really interested in, in this question about renewable energy, is: What’s the cost? Because it’s one thing to say, you know, laudatory and put well-meaning goals out there, but it’s another thing to pay for it.

Miro: Remind me, Joe, was it Gov. Linda Lingle who put this goal forward — the 2045 goal — or is that the following governor?

Kent: Oh, that was the following governor. I believe that happened during the Ige administration in 2015. 

But the first goal was earlier than that, was in 2009. So that may very well have been in the Lingle administration. That goal tried to get to 40%, but now we’re at 100%.

Miro: OK, OK. [laughs] That’s 100% by 2040. 

Now, back to the geothermal biodiesel: Is there any discussion about — because they’re bringing in smaller modules — going nuclear in certain aspects, or is that still way off-limits because just of the perception?

Kent: Yeah, you know, it’s funny when it comes to any discussion about renewable energy, nuclear always comes up. And there must be some sort of equation in renewable energy that the more feasible something is, the less politically popular it is. [laughs] 

But the problem is that you need it to be both politically popular and feasible. And so, with the nuclear option, it could be feasible; it might not be. But it’s even difficult to talk about at all because of the political popularity of that. It’s very, very unpopular.

Miro: OK. And finally, do you see any environmental downsides to renewables?

Kent: Oh, yes. Yes, you know, the mining that’s involved in trying to dig up the raw and rare earth minerals that are needed to create these. I mean, just think about Teslas. Part of the renewable energy goal is to reach 100% renewable for automobiles, right? And so, does that mean that our gas cars, we have to what? Get rid of them by 2045, and what? Buy Teslas?

And, how much does it cost in terms of environmental damage to make a Tesla or any other electric car? Because it’s basically a giant moving battery — a lithium battery. And lithium is abundant, but it’s becoming very scarce quickly. I mean, look at all the car companies across the world. Now, many of them are competing to build their own lithium mines in third-world countries around the world, just so they can secure the lithium.

And if we’ve got the cars getting the lithium and Hawaiian Electric and other utilities trying to get lithium for their battery storage, suddenly, we’ve got a gold rush. We’ve got a battery rush [chuckles] for lithium. And it’s not really environmentally friendly to do all that digging. 

So, like I said, sometimes you might actually …  I’m wondering if we will actually cause more environmental damage in trying to save the environment.

Miro: And then the weight of the batteries. Because you’re hearing studies coming out in England about what the damage it’s doing compared to similar-sized vehicles of the internal combustion engine cars — what it’s doing to the roads.

Kent: Oh, that’s true. You know, these are like, it’s like driving a tank, one of these. Have you ever driven a Tesla? [laughs] It’s very heavy. 

But what’s more concerning to me is the whole switch to a new scenario, a new world, a new energy and transportation system without much critical thought behind it. 

So, I’m asking questions to basically try to poke the bubble and to get other people to think about this, because if this is the new way forward, then we need to assess the risks diligently.

Miro: Do you believe that they’re willing to listen when you bring these issues up, or [has] it been very difficult for you to get any questions in and then people answer them, you know, and you can have a back-and-forth dialogue?

Kent: I find that renewable proponents are extremely good at listening and receptive and want to talk about these issues because the timeline has now scooted up to where they are also asking these questions. 

You know, talk to any renewable proponent or enthusiast or company and they are well aware that these are the Achilles-heel issues for renewable generation, 24/7, 100%. So, they want to be part of the conversation too. I’m just kind of driving it forward.

Miro: All right. Joe Kent, executive vice president of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii. 

Where can they find your work and the rest of your team’s work?

Kent: Yes, our work is at grassrootinstitute.org, and we have an email list of 40,000 people who get our stuff every week about the cost of living, the cost of electricity, the cost of healthcare, and groceries and taxes and so on. So, if you’d like to get onto that, you can go to grassrootinstitute.org.

Miro: Joe, thanks for taking the time on this Sunday. Enjoy the rest of your day, and we’ll be talking to you soon.

Kent: Thanks so much, Johnny. Enjoy your day, too.


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