What we can learn about clean energy from our Pacific neighbors

Photo of sun in Hawaii by Vibrant Image Studio via Shutterstock

Hawaii’s bold bid to move entirely to renewable energy by 2045 seems even bolder when you consider that many of the strategies being embraced by the U.S. mainland won’t necessarily work that well for the 136-island state. (Yes, there are that many, although only eight of them are inhabited.)

Geographically speaking, Hawaii has far more in common with many island nations scattered to its west throughout the Pacific – places like Japan’s Okinawa islands or the Fiji archipelago. Even countries like New Zealand and Australia, which like Hawaii are faced with the prospect of serving a population spread out across many remote communities, also have valuable perspective to offer.

Here are three of my takeaways based on insights and observations offered by experts from these regions during several closing sessions on Thursday at VERGE Hawaii.

The interest in energy storage technology crosses international datelines

One of the last remaining obstacles to broader adoption of energy generated by solar panels or wind turbines remains the intermittency argument – the idea that these sources are too unstable and unpredictable to provide a reliable supply of power. That’s why more experts are pointing to energy storage technologies – essentially huge batteries that can save electricity for use when it is needed – as the holy grail for renewables.

“If you store energy instead of feeding it, you can regulate” the adoption of renewables far more easily, said Henk Rogers, founder and chairman of developer Blue Planet Energy. Earlier, he noted: “We already have enough technology to make the change. We’re right at the turning point of the mainstreaming.”

In the U.S., of course, that sentiment was a big driving factor in Tesla Motors’ $2.8 billion takeover offer for SolarCity. But did you know that New Zealand utility Vector Ltd. is a significant Tesla partner? It is using the U.S. company’s Powerwall system to help businesses and residential customers store energy generated by solar and wind technologies.

The utility views these clean energy as an opportunity rather than a threat, using the load from various energy storage technologies to help with shifting demand requirements, said Vector CEO Simon MacKenzie. “It all starts with mindset. … We link the costs to how we’re avoiding other things in the network,” he said.

Are we being creative enough about financing?

The role that federal and state rebates, tax incentives and other subsidies have played in spurring renewable energy projects on the United States mainland – and in many other established economies – is undeniable. But is that the right strategy for islands or communities where access to an electric grid doesn’t exist today?

New Zealand-based solar company Sunergise International funds pretty much every aspect of its projects – from buying the panels and installing them, to insurance – and then offers the service to businesses across the Pacific Islands for contracted rates. This is akin to a power purchase agreement, although spread out across more than one customer in a given territory. Getting to this place required close collaboration with utilities across the region. One of Sunergise’s biggest clients is Radisson Blu Resort in Fiji.

Sunergise CEO Paul Makumbe said his company is also studying how alternative payment services – such as those enabled by a mobile phones -- might play a role in helping fund projects. That approach might convince far-flung communities to invest in microgrids, allowing local citizens and businesses to buy power on an as-needed basis.

Our motivations may be different, but that shouldn’t get in the way of sharing

Japan’s investment in renewables has accelerated rapidly since the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, thanks in large part to its aggressive feed-in tariffs for solar and other technologies. “We’ve been working proactively to leverage more,” said Sadao Asato, managing director of engineering firm and developer Okinawa Enetch, through an interpreter.

For Okinawa in particular, the shift to clean energy is founded primarily on economic arguments, since fewer businesses in that country are being motivated by environmental concerns. While some hold up development costs as a road block, the expense associated with importing fossil fuels is in many ways just as high, offering an effective argument against naysayers, Asato said.

Jay Ignacio, president of utility Hawaii Electric Light, said Japan’s experience with undersea cables connecting some of its islands should help inform Hawaii’s future investments in this area, where it has little experience today. He’s also interested in sharing notes about how to balance loads across electric grids that are becoming increasingly distributed in design. “The solutions start with people,” he said.

Echoed Asato: “I think it’s important not just to work together but to give feedback to each other.”