Hawaii Is Aiming for 100 Percent Energy Renewables. Can the Nation Follow?

A view of houses with solar panels in the Mililani neighborhood on the island of Oahu in Mililani, Hawaii, December 15, 2013. In just 10 years, Hawaii has evolved from the state most reliant on fossil fuels to the most forward-looking renewable-energy producer, the authors write. Hugh Gentry/Reuters

As G7 world leaders in Germany on June 8 agreed to phase out fossil fuel use by the end of the century, that transition has begun in earnest on the other side of the world.

With Hawaii Governor David Ige’s signature, a 30-year countdown begins. By 2045, Hawaii’s utilities must generate 100 percent of their electricity from renewable sources. This makes the 50th state the first to set its sights on a 100 percent renewable grid, achieving what many thought impossible just a few years ago.

With rising seas already lapping at the foundations of the hotels along Waikiki Beach, Hawaii’s climate debate is over. The Aloha State is successfully proving that a clean and safe renewable-energy economy can save consumers money, create jobs and hedges against the worst impacts of climate change.

This new ambitious target demonstrates what is possible for the nation and proves that the obstacles to transition are not economic or technological. They are political, but they can—and must—be overcome.

Historically, Hawaii has relied on fossil fuels more than any other state. Just 10 years ago, imported fossil fuels accounted for 90 percent of the state’s energy, contributing to electricity prices three times the national average that stifled business and raised the cost of living. Since then, Hawaii has more than doubled its renewable-energy production, boosting the economy and saving consumers hundreds of millions of dollars.

Replacing fossil fuels with renewables saved about $150 per household in 2012 alone. Having utilities invest in renewables also created a booming new industry in the state that has been the fastest-growing sector of Hawaii’s economy, producing thousands of new jobs and accounting for up to a quarter of all building permits in recent years.

Fortunately, other states can also benefit as renewable energy is becoming cost-effective everywhere. For 93 percent of single family households in the nation’s 50 largest cities, North Carolina State University researchers found that investing in solar panels is cheaper than paying current electric bills.

Deutsche Bank predicts that solar power will be as cheap as grid power in 36 states by 2016, even if Congress lets renewable-energy tax credits expire. Renewable energy will inevitably beat the price of any fossil fuel because it’s a technology whose cost decreases as it improves, unlike the cost of fossil fuels, which increase as they become more difficult to extract from a shrinking supply.

Moreover, burning fossil fuels significantly increases costs to taxpayers. According to a recent study in the journal Climatic Change, U.S. fossil fuel power plants create between $330 and 970 billion worth of climate damages and negative health effects every year. That’s over $600,000 every minute.

In Hawaii, taxpayers are already paying for those passed-on costs as state and county governments are forced to spend millions each year fighting impacts of climate change such as rising seas, diminishing rainfall, and increasingly frequent storms. Over five inches of sea level rise in recent decades has been a contributor to the erosion and total loss of Waikiki Beach, which few realize is now completely artificial. Without costly sand replenishment, losing that premier beach would result in an estimated $2 billion annual loss to our economy.

Such costly adverse impacts of fossil fuel emissions have contributed to 97 percent public support for expanding renewable energy in Hawaii, and equally strong political backing is forcing utilities to step up to the plate with solutions to the technological barriers to doing so.

Today, one in eight homes in Hawaii has rooftop solar panels generating their own cheap power—nearly three times the saturation of any other state—and local utilities estimate that number can be safely tripled while simultaneously reducing electric bills another 20 percent. That’s not yet accounting for new energy storage technologies like Tesla’s recently announced batteries, which will open electric grids to even more renewable potential by allowing intermittent solar and wind power to be stored for later use.

If Hawaii can make renewables work on isolated island electrical grids, the rest of the nation—with the flexibility to transmit excess power between states in the event of strong winds in Iowa or excess solar generation in Arizona—can certainly accomplish even more.

The United States has enough wind to power our nation 16 times over. Federal government researchers estimate solar’s potential at 100 times our current electrical generation, and that we could achieve 80 percent renewable energy nationwide by mid-century—just using current technologies. Researchers at Stanford University have gone further and demonstrated how each state could supply 100 percent of their energy needs from wind, water, solar and geothermal sources by 2050.

Urgency is critical, and Hawaii is not alone. California, in the fourth year of its record drought, is expected to lose $3 billion in crops in coming months and has imposed water restrictions on cities. NASA reports there is an 80 percent chance of a decades-long drought far more damaging than this one if we fail to take bold action to reduce fossil-fuel emissions.

Climate inaction further threatens to cause more frequent and intense storms like Hurricane Sandy, which cost Northeastern states a whopping $65 billion, as waters warm and sea levels continue to rise.

In just 10 years, Hawaii has evolved from the state most reliant on fossil fuels to the nation’s most forward-looking renewable-energy producer while demonstrating that our country’s transition to a 100 percent renewable-energy economy is technologically achievable and economically beneficial. Most of all, it’s what Americans want. Recent polling shows 74 percent of Americans support expanding renewable energy, including two-thirds of all Republicans.

So what is standing in the way of this unprecedented opportunity to save consumers money, create new jobs, increase energy independence and protect the next generation from the growing costs of climate change?

In Hawaii, elected officials showed bold leadership, looking beyond party lines to do what was right. The bill for 100 percent renewables passed the state legislature with a 74-2 vote in an unparalleled demonstration of bipartisan political support.

It’s past time for the rest of our nation’s leaders to set partisan politics aside and move our country forward. With leadership and political will, it can be done. Hawaii is already proving it.

Chris Lee represents the neighborhoods of Kailua and Waimanalo in the House of Representatives, is the chair of the House Committee on Energy and Environmental Protection, and the author of HB 623 setting a 100 percent renewable-energy standard for Hawaii utilities.

Evan Weber is the Executive Director of U.S. Climate Plan, an advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C., promoting policy solutions that match the scale of the climate crisis. He was born and raised in Kailua, Hawaii.

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