The Politics of Power
State legislators set an ambitious 100 percent renewable energy benchmark for the state’s energy utilities. Even with the new law in place, removing fossil fuels from the current energy-producing portfolio remains an uphill battle.
By Stuart H. Coleman
If energy is force, then power is its measure and politics is the arena where they battle for control. In the past year, Hawai‘i has become a battleground between political leaders fighting to develop the state’s renewable energy sources (solar, wind, geothermal and wave) and powerful utility companies clinging to their control over an antiquated energy-producing empire that relies on fossil fuels (crude oil and natural gas) to generate electricity.
In 2015, Representative Chris Lee and leaders at the Hawai‘i State Legislature helped launch the nation’s boldest energy plan with House Bill 623. The unprecedented legislation sets forth a goal of creating a 100 percent renewable energy portfolio standard for the state by 2045. According to Representative Lee, this powerful bill is “game changing for Hawai‘i and our country.”
When Governor Ige signed the bill into law (Act 097) last spring, Representative Lee suddenly popped up on the national radar as a young politico on the rise. Legislators around the country were contacting him, asking how they could create and achieve success with similar bills in their states. Like Lee, the bill’s energy goals are bold. Some wonder if the state can achieve them. Currently, Hawai‘i spends billions of dollars each year on imported oil. Can Hawai‘i move from being the state most dependent on imported fossil fuels to becoming the frst state to achieve energy independence?
That is the billion-dollar question. The transformation would require dramatic systemic changes in the way we produce, distribute and use energy.
Leading the charge toward energy independence, Representative Lee, Representative Cynthia Thielen and Senator Mike Gabbard are trying to promote renewable resources while also fghting a potential takeover of Hawai‘i’s utility system by the Florida-based company NextEra Electric.
Like many young people, Representative Chris Lee thought politics was an insider’s game where lobbyists for corporate interests control the players. Yet a curiosity to understand government and politics led him to an internship with Representative Sylvia Luke as one of her staffers at the Capitol.
Curiosity turned into passion when he witnessed a group of local surfers protest the development of a luxury high-rise condominium complex on state land in Kaka‘ako. The ragtag group grew into a full-fedged grassroots movement.
Their momentum peaked when 450 protestors marched to the capitol wearing t-shirts saying, SAVE OUR KAKAAKO: PUBLIC LAND NOT FOR SALE. The coalition successfully stopped the development dead in its tracks. Witnessing the power of the people, Lee was hooked on politics.
After working at the Capitol, Lee decided to run for offce as the Representative of House District 51. In the run-up to the election, he visited every residence in Lanikai, Kailua and Waimānalo. Voters saw his passion and gave him a seat in the House of Representatives in 2008.
During the past eight years, Representative Lee has gone on to become the Chair of the Energy and Environmental Protection Committee and the main driver behind the state’s historic 100 percent renewable energy law. But many question the effectiveness of the new law because it doesn’t provide specifc guidelines to achieve the lofty renewable energy goals.
There is also the looming possibility of NextEra’s takeover of Hawaiian Electric Industries. Opponents of the acquisition say the $4.3 billion deal would undermine the state’s clean energy goals by shipping liquefed natural gas to the state in large quantities. The utility would build a costly new LNG plant and opponents argue that this move would siphon money out of the state for more fossil fuels instead of developing local energy from solar, wind and waves.
Though on different sides of the political fence, legislative veterans Representative Cynthia Thielen and Senator Gabbard were also instrumental in the passage of the 100 percent renewable energy bill and support the need for major transformation in Hawai‘i’s energy policies.
But to understand their policies, it helps to understand their political positions. After moving to Hawai‘i almost fve decades ago, Cynthia Thielen felt the need to get involved in politics after learning that Hawai‘i residents have the highest utility bills in the nation. An environmental lawyer at the time, she decided she could enact more change in the state legislature. She won a seat as a Republican representative for District 51 (Kailua, Käne‘ohe) in 1990. Politics runs in the Thielens’ blood and her daughter, Laura Thielen, would enter politics as well, but on the other side of the aisle. Laura became a Democratic senator in 2012.
As Assistant Minority Floor Leader, Representative Thielen often goes against fellow Republican members in supporting clean energy and environmental issues. Known as a RINO—Republican In Name Only—Representative Thielen is more progressive than many of her democratic colleagues, who in their own right are often more like DINOs—Democrats In Name Only. “The label Democrat and Republican doesn’t work the way it does on the mainland,” Representative Thielen says.
Representative Thielen wants to steer Republicans away from conservative social policies and back to their conservationist roots as embodied by President Teddy Roosevelt, who created the national park system. Unafraid of controversy, for decades she has fought to legalize industrial hemp for its agricultural and industrial benefts. A staunch advocate of clean, renewable energy, Representative Thielen has fought against Hawaiian Electric Industries’ control of O‘ahu’s utility system. She also opposes NextEra’s proposed takeover and its plans to import liquid natural gas (LNG) and build a new processing facility.
“It would be so detrimental to our moving ahead with the 100 percent goal,” says Representative Thielen. Some critics refer to the company as NextError or NextTerror because of their willingness just to swap one fossil fuel (crude oil) for another (liquid natural gas). Hawai‘i Gas and Hawaiian Electric Industries have been selling LNG as a bridge fuel to lower utility costs for ratepayers during the proposed transition from fossil fuels to renewable resources. “Liquid natural gas is a bridge to nowhere,” Representative Thielen quips.
Representative Thielen supports alternative energy projects such as building and deploying wave energy converters in Hawai‘i waters. Since Hawai‘i is in the path of ocean swells that constantly sweep past the islands, she believes the opportunities to harness that untapped energy is rich.
“Hawai‘i is the second best place in the world for wave energy,” she says, “Wave energy is on and working over 90 percent of the time.” Wave energy would add continuity to intermittent solar and wind energy sources that depend on energy storage systems to provide consistent power.
Representative Thielen’s ceaseless advocacy for wave energy is generating waves of its own at the Capitol. She promotes innovative ocean projects at the Marine Corps Base Hawaii in Käne‘ohe, where they will be installing a third test buoy this summer. Though the technology is still in development, Representative Thielen says wave energy converters could one day provide up to 90 percent of the energy for the islands.
Senator Mike Gabbard shares Representative Thielen’s penchant to a conservationist roots. Feeling the pull of public offce and a call to protect the environment, Mike Gabbard ran for Honolulu City Council in 2002, won and served till 2005. Like the Thielens, politics and public service runs in the Gabbard family as well. Senator Gabbard’s daughter, Tulsi Gabbard, followed his footsteps into politics. Her career in government began with a seat on the Honolulu City Council.
In 2004, Mike Gabbard ran for a U.S. congressional seat, but lost the election to Steve Case. Years later, Tulsi would go on to win the same congressional seat, which she still holds today. After Mike Gabbard’s defeat, he rebounded and won a seat in 2006 as a Republican state senator for District 10 (Kapolei, Makakilo, ‘Ewa and Waipahu). In 2007, he became a Democrat. As the Chair of the Energy and Environment Committee, Senator Gabbard has pushed for progressive policies such as higher taxes on oil companies and tax breaks for wind and solar companies.
Politics makes for strange bedfellows. Several years ago, Senator Gabbard and Representative Lee faced off on opposite sides the same-sex marriage debate. Though Lee’s side won and civil unions became legal, the pair put the issue behind them and worked together to introduce the 100 percent renewable energy bills. “This legislation is huge,” says Senator Gabbard.
“The state spends $3 billion to $5 billion annually importing dirty fossil fuels, which we can all agree is not good for the environment, future sustainability or our pocket books. I’m committed to Hawai‘i kicking its addiction to imported fossil fuel by exploring every avenue for energy effciency and utilization of indigenous renewable energy resources.” With the abundance of sun, wind and waves in Hawai‘i, Senator Gabbard believes the ambitious goals can be reached.
“We’ll achieve the biggest energy turnaround in country, moving from 90 percent dependence on fossil fuels to all clean energy,” he says. “Currently, we’re at 23 percent clean renewables. The 2015 goal was to be at 15 percent, so I’d say we’re off to a strong start.”
While ambitious goals are necessary for progress, many people wonder how the state can realistically achieve 100 percent renewable energy by 2045. A loophole in the law allows fossil fuels to be part of the 100 percent renewable energy solution. How can fossil fuels be considered renewable energy? The bill bases the state’s renewable portfolio standard on an equation that calculates the percentage of renewable energy sold by the utility, not the percentage it generates. This leaves the door open for electricity to still be generated by “More than any other utility in the country, NextEra leverages the political process to maintain absolute control over energy generation and distribution, which would only slow our progress toward our renewable energy goals,” says Representative Lee. “The 20th century model of centralized utilities owning power and generation and distribution no longer works in a renewable future in which anybody can generate power on their own To close this loophole, Representative Lee is currently working with Senator Gabbard, Representative Thielen and his legislative colleagues on a series of bills that would reinforce the 100 percent renewable energy law and restructure the state’s utility system. “The big focus this year is on bills that change the utility business model to put the interests of people frst, ensuring that renewable energy use goes up and cost to consumers goes down,” Representative In the future, Lee would like to see the energy utilities make money based on their performance toward goals like reducing overall costs and maximizing renewable Representative Lee is also collaborating with Senator Gabbard, Representative Thielen and others on legislation to push for more energy storage and public ownership like Kaua‘i’s co-op utility.
“We’re moving forward with bills that create new incentives that promote new battery integration and smarter ways to manage power, which will in turn allow substantially more solar and other renewables on the grid,” says Representative Lee.
The guise of low oil prices and ever-soslight rate reductions for ratepayers does not mask the fact that oil is a polluting, fnite resource. It’s time for Hawai‘i to invest heavily in renewable energy infrastructure and technology. “The cost of renewable technology is going to beat the price of fossil fuels in the long run because renewable energy is a technology and its price declines with its advances,” says Representative Lee. “Fossil fuels are a commodity. Its price increases as it becomes more and more diffcult to extract from a shrinking resource. Inevitably, we’re going to get there.”
Along with the 100 percent renewable energy bill, Representative Lee helped pass a net-zero energy bill for the University of Hawai‘i and worked with the 350.org coalition to spur the University of Hawai‘i Board of Regents to divest from fossil fuels.
This session, he and Senator Gabbard are fghting an uphill battle to get the state’s Employees’ Retirement System to divest from fossil fuel industries, especially since the stock positions have only gone down over the last few years.
“This is the frst time in the history of our nation when we are saying that enough is enough!” says Representative Lee. “We have to make a change. Not because it makes fnancial interest right this minute, but because it makes a world of difference to our future, both economically and socially; because it’s the right thing to do for our country and that’s really what this is all about.”
Stuart Coleman is the award-winning author of Eddie Would Go, Fierce Heart and a new gift book, Eddie Aikau: Hawaiian Hero. For this article, he received assistance from legal intern Kaily Wakefeld, a student at the University of Hawai‘i’s Richardson School of Law.