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Ige: No to Roth’s Energy Emergency Request

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Hawaiʻi County Mayor Mitch Roth is so concerned about how much higher energy costs could increase, he asked Gov. David Ige last week to declare an energy emergency, which could expedite decisions by the state Public Utilities Commission on renewable energy projects.

But the governor isn’t inclined to grant the mayor’s request.

Gov. David Ige

“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,” Ige’s office stated on Friday, March 18. “A more immediate solution would be to tackle Hawaiʻi County’s backlog of solar and battery storage permit applications.”

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

The statement from Ige’s office, however, did acknowledge that 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.”

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Roth responded Tuesday, March 22, to the statement from the governor’s office.

“We’ve been tackling the backlog as far as the PV permits,” the mayor told Big Island Now, adding that the county even has a new form to help speed up the permitting process for residential rooftop photovoltaic, or solar, systems. “As of today, my understanding is there’s very little backlog in the PV permits.”

Roth said that while there was a terrible backlog a couple of months ago, the county has pretty much caught up.

“So we’re working on things like that,” the mayor said.

Roth added that the county is also working toward other changes such as transforming its vehicle fleet to a green energy fleet and is negotiating contracts to make that happen. It also received grant funds to update its electric vehicle charging stations to be able to better charge resident’s vehicles and those in the county’s fleet.

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So while the governor’s idea of focusing on the backlog of solar and other renewable energy projects is a great idea, the mayor said the county is already doing so.

“We beat him to the punch because we’re already starting to catch up on that,” Roth said.

The mayor said his request for an energy emergency declaration wasn’t just for Hawaiʻi Island, it was for the entire state.

“We have projects that go from wind, solar, geothermal; I mean, there’s a lot of different things on all of the islands that we could be doing to getting us to 100% renewable green fuels,” Roth said.

Roth said last week that the biggest impediment to reaching a goal of 100% renewable energy use is the PUC, which sometimes sits on decisions for years. The mayor said if the decision-making process could be fast-tracked, the Big Island could be using 100% renewable energy — produced locally — within the next three years.

Hawaiʻi County Mayor Mitch Roth (Photo courtesy of the Office of the Hawaiʻi County Mayor)
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“It is my understanding that renewable energy projects that would stabilize energy costs and provide greater resilience and reliability have been sitting in front of the PUC awaiting decisions and next steps,” said Roth’s letter to the governor, which Big Island Now received Tuesday, March 22, via email. “If all these projects were approved, Hawaiʻi Island could be producing 100% renewable electric energy. This could save millions of hard-earned dollars and prevent hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil from being burned to produce electricity on Hawaiʻi Island alone.”

Nearly 40% of the electricity produced on the Big Island requires fossil fuels, according to the mayor’s letter. Hawaiian Electric also recently predicted a 20% increase in electricity costs in the near future.

With the war in Ukraine, fuel prices began to rapidly climb, Roth told Ige in his letter. And with more than 50% of the Big Island community living in asset limited income constrained and employed, or ALICE, category, increased costs for fuel and energy could mean hardship for many of the island’s residents.

“Increased fuel prices could mean the difference between children missing meals or families being able to afford rent,” Roth said in his letter. “The time to act is now.”

He urged Ige to declare an energy emergency with the primary purpose of fasttracking renewable energy projects being reviewed by the PUC.

A statement from the PUC sent Monday, March 21, to Big Island Now said the commission devotes substantial resources to expeditiously review proposed contracts between project developers and electric utilities for renewable energy.

“Even so, these long-term contracts have significant impacts on customers, and evaluating these contracts is an intensive process that typically takes six to 12 months to complete,” the statement said.

Three years ago, the PUC did improve its internal processes and began expediting the review process, reducing the time it took to complete the process by half even while reviewing multiple simultaneous projects, according to the statement. In most cases, project review now takes three to six months.

“My recommendation is to require the PUC to review renewable energy projects within 60 days and if the PUC finds that all four criteria set forth in Hawaiʻi Revised Statutes section 2696 (b) are met, the commission shall approve the application of a renewable energy project,” Roth’s letter to Ige said.

Out of 16 recent competitively bid renewable energy projects that have been approved, 10 were approved in less than six months, including six projects that were approved in less than 90 days, the PUC said in its statement.

Image from the state Public Utilities Commission website

“However, the review process can take longer depending on the circumstances for specific projects,” the statement said, adding the commission makes every effort to provide opportunities for interested stakeholders in projects to meaningfully participate and contribute to the review of projects, which is required by law.

Making accommodations for public hearings and community meetings, along with other procedural requirements, can lengthen the time it takes for the PUC to render a sound decision.

“Rubber stamping or rushing the review of energy projects may be tempting to certain parties,” the PUC statement said. “But the fact is that this is a short-sighted approach that not only creates a barrier to public participation, it also puts any project approvals at risk of an appeal in court that leaves projects in limbo for years while in litigation, and could void the approvals altogether.”

To the PUC’s knowledge, Hawaiʻi governors have not proclaimed an energy emergency in recent memory. And this is not the first time the islands have had to cope with increasing energy costs.

“The recent dramatic spike in energy prices is not unprecedented and this is not the first time the state has faced a crisis due to rising energy costs,” the commission’s statement said. “The recent events are a reminder of the price we pay for our dependence on oil.”

Before 2010, the state was more than 90% dependent on imported oil for electricity. By last year, in part because of policy, regulatory and technology innovations, the state was nearly 38% renewable, with some islands, including the Big Island, more than 60% renewable.

“This accomplishment is a testament to the dedication and hard work of the state’s residents and business, in cooperation with electric utilities and government agencies, to transition to renewable energy,” the statement said.

To ensure Hawaiʻi hits its target of 40% renewable energy by 2030, the statement said the PUC has and continues to aggressively pursue policies that reduce cost, improve customer service and aid in the transition to a 100% renewable energy future. Throughout the past decade, the commission said it also pushed electric utilities to bring on more renewables faster.

“The commission’s preferred approach to decision-making is to conduct thorough reviews that minimize costly delays due to litigation,” the PUC statement said, adding the commission recently conducted a contested case hearing for a renewable energy project that was subsequently appealed. “Although the appeal caused a delay for the project, the Hawaiʻi Supreme Court upheld the commission’s decision as lawful and reasonable, allowing the project to move forward.”

In another case, the PUC ordered the use of expedited mediation to resolve conflicts between a renewable energy project and the community, leading to an agreement between the parties that allowed the commission to approve the project with community support.

The PUC’s statement also said that in the past five years, the commission directed Hawaiian Electric to bring online new renewable energy projects as quickly as possible to address high energy costs. The PUC also has approved nearly 800 megawatts of renewable energy and storage projects in Hawaiʻi.

In addition, the commission has approved new programs for nearly 500 MW of rooftop solar and community-based renewables, according to the statement, which added these projects will help stabilize and reduce energy costs moving forward.

“These successes represent a model for project proponents, and demonstrate that public input, respect and due process can and should be the standards for reviewing any renewable energy project in Hawaiʻi,” the PUC statement said.

“The whole state, I think, needs to be moving forward with renewable energy, and I do think by speeding up the PUC, not only for Hawaiʻi Island but for the rest of the state, we can get there a lot quicker,” Roth said Tuesday.

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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