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Mayor Roth Asks Ige to Declare Energy Emergency as Fuel Prices Rise

By Nathan Christophel
March 17, 2022, 7:18 AM HST
* Updated March 18, 5:09 PM
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Gas prices are soaring. The cost for a gallon of regular gasoline is more than $5 at several pumps throughout East Hawai‘i. Other fuel and energy prices also are increasing. Just last week, Hawaiian Electric said oil prices, driven up because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, will push electric bills higher in the coming months.

Hawai‘i County Mayor Mitch Roth doesn’t think he’s ever seen prices for gas as high as they are now. Concerned about how much higher energy costs could increase, the mayor is asking Gov. David Ige to help fast-track projects that could make Hawai’i County no longer dependent on energy sources dependent on fossil fuels.

Hawai‘i County Mayor Mitch Roth speaks Wednesday during a Zoom meeting. (Screenshot from video)

“I’ve been privy to some briefings and there are expectations that our fuel prices will go a lot higher. I’m very concerned,” Roth told Big Island Now on Wednesday during a Zoom meeting. “In fact, to the point where I have asked the governor to declare (an) energy emergency, with the sole purpose of making sure we can be 100% green energy really quickly.”

With the Russia and Ukraine war, Roth said now is time to move toward 100% renewable energy.

The mayor explained that the island now uses about 60% green energy, including solar, wind and geothermal. But standing in the way of that 100% goal is a slow state Public Utilities Commission. Roth said the PUC sometimes sits on decisions for years, but if that process can be fast-tracked, the Big Island could be using 100% renewable energy within the next three years — just with the projects in front of the commission now.

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“So, I’ve asked the governor, I’ve urged the governor, to declare this energy emergency,” he said. “Not to mandate anything on the people, but to fast-track the PUC so that we can make sure that we’re getting our energy from local resources, sustainable resources.”

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The mayor explained that an energy emergency declaration could speed up the PUC process so projects that meet the correct criteria could be approved within 100 days instead of lingering for years while the commission makes its decision. According to state law, the PUC is tasked with evaluating a project’s effect on the state’s reliance on fossil fuels based on several criteria, including price volatility, fuel supply reliability risk and greenhouse gas emissions.

“Can you imagine if we were using just green energy that was produced on our island at a cost cheaper than the cost of fossil fuels and being carbon neutral or, even better, carbon-negative?” Roth asked.

The mayor said no longer being reliant on outside fossil fuels means the island would have reliable, cheap energy sources, helping to protect the planet and prevent sea-level rise and more.

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“That’s something that’s in our grasp right now,” Roth said.

The mayor asked Ige on Monday to declare an energy emergency, during a meeting with the governor and county mayors. He will be laying out his plans in a letter, which will likely be sent to the governor’s desk today, March 17. Roth said he expects to speak with Ige again Friday.

“When you think about gas prices, you’re talking about fossil fuels,” Roth said. “When you have to add those costs to not only driving but to the work that gets done, the prices of various items that you purchase, it raises all prices. So that could have a very drastic effect on the county’s budget.”

And not just the county’s budget. It also affects the pocketbooks of every resident on the island. As an example, Roth pointed out that 40% of the electricity produced on the island is produced by fossil fuel, so as fossil fuel prices increase, so, too, do electricity prices.

That means if a store has to pay more for its electricity, prices go up. If the people who deliver vegetables and milk have to charge more because they have to pay more for gas, then prices go up.

“So it’s a ripple effect,” Roth said. “You can’t just think of the fuel costs as being for driving vehicles. Everything else is impacted by that as well.”

Roth said when he came into office, he decided his administration would be one that looks at sustainability. Reducing energy costs and moving toward using more renewable energy sources is one of the keys to that sustainability.

The county is already looking at ways to convert operations from being based on fossil fuels to more renewable energy, including looking at how it lights its buildings and changing to a green energy fleet of vehicles. The increase in cost is making those moves more urgent.

Roth hopes to see some positive changes in the next year or so as the county moves forward with some of those plans. And even more, if an energy emergency is declared and the PUC stops shuffling its feet.

“When we save dollars on electricity right now and reduce the amount of fossil fuel that we’re bring in, that makes a difference for tomorrow,” Roth said.

The mayor added that saving energy reduces the costs for everything. He couldn’t stress enough how important it is for everyone to take heed of what’s going on with energy and fuel prices and thanked everyone who is already doing their part, encouraging others to do the same.

“We’re all in this together, and I think we’re blessed to live on an island where people really do try to do the best for each other and treat people with aloha,” Roth said.

A spokesperson for the governor said Friday, March 18, that Ige’s office received Roth’s proposal in writing late Thursday afternoon, March 17.

“The requested action to expedite PUC decisions on renewable energy projects on Hawaiʻi Island would not address the immediate challenges, as each of the projects would have additional steps following a PUC decision before they can be brought online,” said a statement from Ige’s office. “A more immediate solution would be to tackle Hawaiʻi County’s backlog of solar and battery storage permit applications.”

The statement said the current situation of increasing energy and fuel prices underscores the importance of Hawaiʻi’s first-in-the-nation commitment to renewable energy.

“When more of the grid is powered by renewables, it will better insulate the state from oil market prices,” the statement from the governor’s office said. “Gov. Ige and Mayor Roth share a vision for a renewable energy future in Hawaiʻi and are working together with many others to ensure that it becomes a reality.”

Nathan Christophel
Nathan Christophel has more than 20 years of experience in journalism, starting out as a reporter and working his way up to become a copy editor and page designer, most recently at the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in Hilo.
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