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All things energy: The trend towards resilience and sustainability

By BY CINDY SCHUMACHER - | Mar 30, 2017

“We appreciate all the participants that came to the Maui Energy Conference. We enjoyed discussing policies and practices with experts from around the country, helping us navigate the rapidly changing energy environment,” said Mayor Alan Arakawa. Pictured, from left, are State Rep. Chris Lee; Doug McLeod of DKK Energy Services; Alan Oshima, president and CEO of Hawaiian Electric Company; Mayor Arakawa; and Brian Kealoha, executive director of Hawaii Energy/Leidos Engineering LLC. PHOTO COURTESY OF HAWAII ENERGY.

KAHULUI – The fourth annual Maui Energy Conference, held March 22-25 at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center, broadened its scope this year to become a timely and innovative forum as the state continues its transition to a clean energy economy by 2045.

The conference theme, “All Things Energy: Pursuing Opportunities for Electricity and Beyond,” covered topics from electricity and gasoline to transportation and water delivery systems. The program included keynote speakers, a session featuring case studies and plenty of time for networking and viewing the exhibits.

Hosted by the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development and Maui Economic Development Board (MEDB), the 2017 conference explored why we need to change the way we think and how to work toward implementing the new ideas.

Over 350 attendees, including utility executives, clean energy advocates, urban planners, transportation specialists, renewable energy providers, state and local government officials, and national and international experts in many fields, participated in discussions about the energy future as it begins to move away from fossil fuel sources of electricity to make the state more energy-resilient and sustainable.

Guillermo Penalosa launched the event with his talk on “Creating Vibrant, Healthy, and Resilient Communities for All.”

“If you create a great city for an eight-year-old and an 80-year-old, you will create a successful city for all people,” said Penalosa, founder and chairman of the board, 8 80 Cities. His concept involves the use of more parks and sustainable mobility: walking, riding bicycles and public transit.

“We seem to be facing a perfect storm of threats and challenges, but in every challenge lies opportunity,” he explained. “How we plan, build and cultivate a healthy city life for people of all ages, abilities and socio-economic backgrounds has never been more important than it is today. As Hawaii pursues efforts to reduce its carbon footprint in the electricity and transportation sectors, there are opportunities to build healthier, happier communities.”

A panel discussion on “Emerging Trends in Hawaii Energy Policy” offered a look into Maui County’s current stand. Mayor Alan Arakawa noted that last year’s study, The Guernsey Report, suggested the county, which comprises the islands of Maui, Lanai and Molokai, should work with a private company to take over the electric grid from Maui Electric.

“The study did its job and certainly made an impact on the industry,” the mayor said. “It was never about replacing MECO; it was about what can be most beneficial to the county. We’re still looking at different changes to the grid system and different types of energies. At the same time, the county sees the electric company now working with the community and exploring ways the community can generate their own electricity.”

The challenge of achieving decarbonized energy production and maintaining an energy system that is reliable, safe, affordable, secure and resilient is formidable. Resilience (this year’s buzz word) suggests toughness and the ability to bounce back from catastrophic circumstances.

Since the last energy conference, Hawaii has seen a failed utility-company merger and several near misses from hurricanes. That is why this year’s conference emphasized resilience and sustainability as the context for discussing the challenges faced by utilities and other energy stakeholders.

About 50 speakers presented, debated and discussed the broad resilience theme. “Urban design dictates lifestyle, and lifestyle has a huge impact on people’s energy footprint,” said Jonathan Koehn, Conference Program Committee member and regional sustainability coordinator for the City of Boulder. “There are so many ways that physical infrastructure around us influences our energy choices.”

Koehn moderated a panel featuring Paul Brewbaker of TZ Economics, Kyle Datta of the Ulupono Initiative, Jeffrey Pearson of the state Commission on Water Resource Management, and Rick Volner Jr. of Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar (HC&S). The panel examined the nexus between agricultural production, water use and energy production.

“The goal is collective interdependence and cooperation,” Koehn explained. “Resilient and sustainable communities are formed by all sectors working together. Food, water and energy must all intersect in agriculture.”

Volner said, “With the successful closure of sugar operations in 2016, HC&S is currently implementing diversified agricultural and renewable energy opportunities on the former sugarcane land. For example, we are looking at raising cattle and working with local farmers, besides developing renewable energy projects.”

Datta noted that, “Hawaii is just beginning a critical conversation about the role of water in energy resiliency and sustainability. The public may have to get used to new fees to protect watersheds, much as they have adjusted to fees on their electric bills for energy efficiency.”

Various panels investigated the strategies required to secure reliable, safe and affordable energy as an entire system. The place of nuclear energy as a “clean” energy source was also discussed.

“Whatever your objective is, the argument that nuclear energy is more friendly to the environment is being made across the country,” explained Program Committee Chairman Doug McLeod. “We wanted our audience to be familiar with the arguments being made at the national level, and then add a layer of Hawaii-specific information related to our constitutional provision.”

“Building nuclear plants is a tough task anywhere in the U.S.,” said Gavin Bade, associate editor of Utility Dive and moderator of the panel on “Emerging Trends in Nuclear Energy Policy.”

Hawaii’s constitutional limitations and public sentiment against the technology make the task an even tougher one in the Aloha State, he explained. “This year’s expert panelists agreed that if nuclear ever is to come to the state, it will likely be in the form of small modular reactors of less than 50 megawatts. While these technologies are currently in development, panelists concurred they are at least a decade from commercialization. As such, there is likely not a role for nuclear on the islands for at least the next ten years.”

An invited presentation by featured speaker Michelle Wyman, executive director of the National Council for Science and Environment (NCSE), set the tone for the discussion on day two of the conference. She discussed the alignments between energy, science and policy, and offered insights into pursuing those.

Another draw for this year’s conference was Carol Sim, director of environmental affairs for Alaska Airlines. Sim has been instrumental in developing Alaska Air’s formal sustainability program and establishing emission reduction goals, including use of a new sustainable, alternative jet fuel made from forest residuals.

While it is challenging to predict the future of the energy issues that were being discussed, a panel of experts was asked what they thought the energy industry might look like in 25 years. Cheryl Roberto of Twenty-First Century Utilities, an investment utility firm in Washington, D.C., said, “Utilities have been the backbone of energy transformation and will continue to be, but their role is evolving. They won’t be the sole provider anymore. Instead, there will be a platform for integrating all the energy services out there as a market innovator.”