Lingle: Hawai‘i must ease oil reliance

Governor Linda Lingle yesterday said security trumps reliability when it comes to Hawai‘i’s energy production.

Speaking to a crowd of about 150 at a Kaua‘i Chamber of Commerce luncheon, the governor said oil-burning systems can no longer be considered the most dependable form of generation.

“If you can’t get the oil, reliable becomes a meaningless word,” Lingle said. Instead, energy security should take top priority for the state by focusing on independent and clean generation, she added.

Lingle called Hawai‘i the “biggest junkie” in an oil-addicted nation. Ninety percent of Hawai‘i’s energy production comes from oil, compared to the national average of 4 percent. In addition, 99 percent of the oil used by Hawai‘i comes from non-U.S. sources.

“The impact (of rising oil prices) on us is greater than anywhere else in America,” Lingle said.

Last year the state spent $5 billion on foreign oil; this year the figure is $7 billion — money that could be pumped into Hawai‘i’s economy through renewable projects.

Dennis Esaki, president of the Kaua‘i Island Utility Cooperative board of directors, didn’t agree with Lingle that reliability should take a back seat or with her description of oil dependence in Hawai‘i.

Esaki said Hawai‘i leads the nation in energy production from oil because most states use coal — also a fossil fuel, and far more damaging to the environment.

Esaki also noted that dependable power is of concern no matter what percentage of generation comes from oil, and particularly as the co-op transitions to new technologies.

“Reliability has to take into account everything to keep the power on,” he said.

Kaua‘i Island Utility Cooperative has committed to 50 percent renewable energy generation by 2023. When the strategic plan was passed last fall, the goal was the most ambitious in Hawai‘i. Seven months later, however, state and national targets have surpassed KIUC’s, and runaway oil prices have heightened the sense of urgency among some renewable advocates and consumers for faster implementation.

The KIUC board of directors has consistently responded that it has an obligation to keep the lights on, which it couldn’t guarantee if it hastily invested in new technologies that have not been thoroughly vetted. Furthermore, the board has said, KIUC is too small to research and pioneer each renewable idea that comes along.

Virtually undisputed, however, is a need to change the system that’s worked for so long. KIUC, the county and the state have taken their own steps to outline a plan for the next decade or two.

Earlier this year Lingle partnered with the U.S. Department of Energy to create the Hawai‘i Clean Energy Initiative, which pledges 70 percent clean energy production within a generation. Projects include solar installations on state buildings and expanding Hawai‘i’s capability to use locally grown crops as byproducts for producing fuel and electricity.

Yesterday Lingle said raising the cap on solar net metering customers — currently at 1 percent of a utility’s peak generation — is a means to reduce dependence on oil. Such customers sell the energy they don’t use to the utility and remain hooked up to the grid for undisrupted power.

Last month Kaua‘i reached solar net metering capacity, the first island to do so.

“We want to look at getting the (Public Utilities Commission) to take that cap off, not just on Kaua‘i but statewide,” she said.

For its part, the County Council this week passed the first reading of an energy sustainability plan, which aims to identify opportunities and threats, incentives and disincentives of energy efficiency and conservation, including education programs for the community.

The plan, introduced by council members JoAnn Yukimura and Jay Furfaro, will also focus on the development of renewable and alternative power and fuel resources within the county and the community.

Investment in

the future

Lingle also echoed chamber President Randall Francisco’s message from the last few months that Kaua‘i businesses should invest in their employees despite unfavorable economic conditions.

“This is not a time for us to hunker down and weather the storm,” she said. Instead, businesses should invest in their employees and end up better prepared when the storm clears than when it arrived.

On the state level, this translates to infrastructure improvements, which she said are necessary to ensure a solid foundation for Hawai‘i’s economic growth. The state has projected 38 percent growth on Kaua‘i by 2035, bringing the population to 85,000.

An estimated $29 million will be spent on highway and bridge projects slated for completion this year. Another $86 million is pegged for nine upcoming projects, including a four-lane widening of Kuhio Highway in Wailua and a four-lane widening of Kaumuali‘i in Lihu‘e.

In addition, $58 million in improvements will be made to Lihu‘e Airport’s baggage claim, air-conditioning and parking. The harbors, too, will receive some attention, with $7.8 million already spent at Nawiliwili and another $3 million planned for 2010.

Lingle cautioned that the economic downturn, while present, is not all bad news. Hawai‘i’s revenue growth for the fiscal year ending June 30 is 3.3 percent, down from a projected 3.9 percent. However, Lingle stressed that growth is still occurring; unemployment is 3.3 percent and 3.2 percent for the state and Kaua‘i, respectively; Delta Airlines recently added transpacific service to the island; and Kaua‘i visitor days are up 1 percent even though arrivals are down.

“The short-term issues will pass,” Lingle said. “We need to make sure the fundamentals are addressed.”

• Blake Jones, business writer/assistant editor, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 251) or bjones@kauaipubco.com

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