Efficiency powers Hawaii's quest for energy independence

Energy efficiency upgrades in Hawaii's airports are projected to save $518 million.
ShutterstockJanis Apels
Energy efficiency upgrades in Hawaii's airports are projected to save $518 million. 

While Hawaii pursues its commitment to reach 100 percent renewable energy in the electricity sector by 2045, the state is progressing on a parallel track to make better use of the energy it already has.

Improving energy efficiency is the most cost-effective way to move Hawaii forward before adding new generation capacity, according to experts, and will reduce dependence on fossil fuels in the state with the most expensive electricity costs in the United States.

"We know that we need to continue doing both: work on the reduction of energy consumption at the same time that we move forward with clean, sustainable energy systems," said David Ige, governor of Hawaii, during his opening remarks to the VERGE Hawaii conference in Honolulu. "That’s the best way to make the biggest impact on our environment."

Doubling energy productivity in the U.S. overall could save $327 billion annually in power bills, create more than a million jobs and slash carbon dioxide emissions by 33 percent by 2030, according to the Alliance to Save Energy. The concept of energy productivity takes the efficiency discussion one step further by ensuring that reductions in power consumption don't happen at the expense of economic growth. Hawaii is prioritizing efficiency to coincide with its 2045 goal and continued commitment to the Paris Agreement.

"The lowest hanging fruit is energy efficiency; it’s the cheapest, quickest way to control energy usage," said Lorraine Akiba, commissioner of the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission (PUC).

Retro buildings are in style

In March, Ige signed a new building code governing the construction and renovation of new buildings as well as existing residential, commercial and state buildings. For now, the code applies to state construction — counties have two years to take action, after which the updates automatically will go into effect.

"These programs have just as much of an impact as putting in a generation system," the governor said. "The investment in energy efficiency systems will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 1 million tons."

According to a Cadmus Group analysis (PDF), the cost savings created by the new rules start at $4 million for the first year. In its nascent year, the action also will deliver 1.2 million kilowatt hours of energy savings with a cost of just 2 cents per kilowatt hour, said Ige, equivalent to the generation of a 64-acre solar farm, or enough energy to "power 195,000 homes for a year." The savings will grow to $14.5 billion across the islands over two decades as more buildings comply with the requirements, according to the projections.

The code, adapted from the 2015 International Energy Conservation Code to fit the island state’s specific needs, includes updates to technological advancements, such as LED lights and building automation, which have enabled deeper energy savings since the previous, decades-old energy code was enacted in 2006.

"Think of efficiency as a fuel, which is especially important for islands like Hawaii," which spends about $5 billion per year on imported oil, said Brenden Millstein, CEO of energy efficiency specialist Carbon Lighthouse, during a breakout panel at the conference.

Using new technology, such as sensors that can uncover and automatically adjust hidden inefficiencies in existing equipment, can cut up to 30 percent of building energy use, he said, as well as collect vast new data sets that will monitor energy loss.

The global Internet of Things for the intelligent buildings market will grow from $6.3 billion in 2017 to $22.2 billion in 2026, said PUC Commissioner Akiba, creating evolving opportunities for demand in energy efficiency projects.

Aerial performance

Public-private partnerships in the form of energy performance contracts (EPCs) are key to closing the energy efficiency gap in Hawaii.

Hawaii’s state and local government agencies have signed (PDF) more than $442 million in performance contracts since 1996, reports the Hawaii State Energy Office, which it estimates will save $1.1 billion over the contracts’ lifespans. The projects comprise over 96 million square feet in 225 buildings or facilities and generate enough savings to power more than 368 thousands homes for a year.  

EPCs help building owners reduce power consumption and reduce energy bills at no expense to the owner since the contractor takes on the cost of equipment and is repaid by the energy savings costs of the project.

Hawaii has ranked first in government energy performance contracting in the United States since 2011. The state also is home to the largest performance contract in the country: a $158 million deal awarded by the Hawaiian Department of Transportation (HDOT) to Johnson Controls in 2013, covering 12 of the state’s 15 airports.  

"We are close to a 50 percent energy reduction for Hawaii, Oahu, Kauai and Maui airports through the installation of high-efficiency lighting and clean energy systems," Ige said.

The airports have been outfitted with 74,000 new light fixtures, more than 9,000 solar PV panels, upgraded chilled water and air-conditioning systems, and smart controls. Projected economic benefits over the 18-year performance period will be more than $518 million in saved energy costs, $20.3 million in tax revenues, millions in income to households and more than 860 jobs created or supported annually, according to the HDOT.

"Investing in energy efficiency not only lowers harmful carbon emissions, it reduces home and business energy costs, stimulates economic growth and improves energy system reliability," said Luis Salaveria in a statement for the Hawaii State Energy Office. "By reducing government spending on energy we are able to free up valuable taxpayer dollars for other essential programs."

The airport upgrade also intersects with the challenge of prioritizing sustainable tourism in Hawaii — the state is hugely dependent on the visitors who spent $15.6 billion there in the last year alone. 

The state has a goal of reducing energy demand by 4,300 gigawatt-hours by 2030, or 40 percent below 2007 levels, reports Greentech Media. Hawaii is 23 percent towards its electricity and energy efficiency targets, according to Aloha + Challenge, a statewide commitment to achieve interconnected sustainability targets by 2030. 

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