Re-localizing our energy system

Although it is a familiar story to many, it’s interesting to reflect on our island’s energy history. It wasn’t long ago that our electricity came exclusively from on-island sources. Plantation towns brought electrification — first to mills, then to the surrounding communities.

As the island grew, those communities connected into an islandwide grid. As obvious as it sounds today, this was a significant transformation that took place on Kauai. Electricity brought services and benefits to our community and our lives that were previously unprecedented, and at the time, quite amazing.

As big sugar slowly faded over the second half of the last century, so did our local source of electricity. From the 60s through the 90s, Kauai Electric, an investor owned utility based in Connecticut, invested in fossil generation to accommodate growing electricity demand and diminishing local electricity supplies.

Into the 90s, cheap, plentiful oil, imported from all corners of the world,  accounted for over 90 percent of our electricity. The tourist industry had by then replaced sugar as our prime economic driver.  

Although it still required a very skilled workforce to deliver, electricity came a lot easier to most of us than to the generation before. Together, tourism and the cheap energy that fueled it represented another significant transformation of our Island.

Fast forward a decade, and we can see that we were all caught flat-footed by our severe oil dependence. Electricity, which had been so cheap as to almost escape mention, overnight because a source of vigorous debate and contention. Awareness of the global environmental impacts also awoke us out of our energy induced slumber, first with Katrina, then with more and more extreme events at home and around the world.

Concurrent to this sea change, our electric utility was also going through a transformation from investor owned utility to cooperative. What was already a complex situation became even more challenging – and even more contentious. Why were prices going up when the whole idea of ‘buying the utility’ and forming a coop was supposed to save money? And why not just switch to renewable energy sources — the sun and the wind are free, right?

We have all since come to better understand the issues arising from our move away from oil and, simultaneously, to a cooperative utility structure. And despite the ongoing friction we naturally see, our cooperative has made significant progress towards relocalizing our energy sources.

With oil, our energy came from far away, and we could ignore the negative impacts it’s extraction had on other communities. Now, we’re taking responsibility again, and it is not easy. What community wants to give up valuable farmland for energy crops or solar farms? Who wants to see wind turbines or deal with new technologies in our backyards? How about hydropower, and the incredibly sensitive and important issues that come with managing our Island’s water resources?

These issues are causing turmoil here on Kauai and across the state.

One thing we do know. We can’t push the impacts off shore any more. It’s time to relocalize our energy system. It’s time to decide, as a community, how we’ll solve these problems. It’s as much an opportunity as a challenge, and at it’s best, it will be a collaborative transformation for Kauai. Much of Mayor Bernard Carvalho, Jr.’s Holo Holo 2020 vision centers around issues of sustainability and energy independence.

 Please come join us at KEDB’s annual energy conference, “After Oil: Managing the Transformation” on Aug. 15 at the Kauai Marriott.

Information: www.kedb.com

 • Ben Sullivan is the energy coordinator for the County of Kauai. He works with a great team of people in the Kauai County Office of Economic Development, where he welcomes the daily opportunity to help Kauai people solve their energy challenges. He can be reached at bsullivan@kauai.gov. For more information on Holo Holo 2020, visit www.kauai.gov/mayor.

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