Why Hawaii is ground zero for convergence — and VERGE

Two Steps Forward

Why Hawaii is ground zero for convergence — and VERGE

I’m very proud to share an announcement made late last week by the Hawaii State Energy Office: Beginning next year, it will partner with GreenBiz Group to produce a Pan Asian Clean Energy Summit, to be called VERGE Hawaii. The premiere event will take place June 21-23, 2016, in Honolulu.

It’s an exciting opportunity that goes way beyond bringing one of our signature events to a tropical paradise. Hawaii is unquestionably leading the way, not just in renewable energy, but also in the convergence of technologies that is at the heart of our global event series called VERGE.

In recent years, but especially over the past few months, the Aloha State has been making waves when it comes to clean energy. It already boasts a high percentage of the electricity it consumes from solar and wind — it gets 21 percent from renewables, more than any other state. One household in eight has solar, the highest penetration in the United States.

In May, the state’s governor, David Ige, upped the ante, signing into law House Bill 623 (passed by a bipartisan vote of 74-2), making Hawaii the first state in the nation to adopt a goal of 100 percent renewable energy. Getting there by 2045, as the law mandates, will require the state to broadly deploy not just solar, wind, biomass and other generation technologies, but also battery storage, microgrids, electric vehicles and a variety of grid-management tools, further burnishing Hawaii as the preeminent learning laboratory for the future of clean energy. How it does this, and what it learns along the way, will be critical to scaling renewable energy in other states and around the world.

It also will position Hawaii at the forefront of a larger, global movement to make islands cleaner and more resilient amid a changing climate. That’s no small thing. Islands, because they lack connection to a larger electricity grid, present a challenge to renewable energy: They can’t rely on the mainland to supply electricity when the winds don’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine.

Moreover, many islands around the world rely on imported fuels to power their electricity grid, which is expensive and polluting, not just in terms of climate change but also local air quality. The Caribbean is one region experiencing a transition from imported fuels to renewables, thanks to the work of the Rocky Mountain Institute, Carbon War Room (even before its merger with RMI), and others. Richard Branson is using Necker Island, his private Caribbean enclave, as a spawning ground for microgrid technologies. Kodiak Island, Alaska, the nation’s second-largest island (after Hawaii’s Big Island), is going 100 percent renewable. There’s also Block Island, a few miles off the coast of Rhode Island, which has long relied on imported diesel, shipped to the island by boat, to keep the lights on. Now it’s becoming a hub for wind energy.

In harm's way

There’s another reason islands are a hotbed of activity for renewables: They are in harm’s way from climate change. The Third National Climate Assessment, released last year by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, cited dire impacts from climate change to the U.S. Pacific Islands region, which consists of more than 2,000 islands, including Hawaii: the bleaching or death of coral reefs from ocean warming and acidification; saltwater intrusion into freshwater sources; stressed native plants and animals from warmer temperatures and decreased rainfall; increased coastal flooding and erosion from rising sea levels; and mounting threats to food and water security and infrastructure.

Given this, many of these islands, including Hawaii's, are pushing to harden themselves and build resilience against disruption. And it's a key reason why Hawaii’s legislature and governor are creating a sea change in the state's energy use.

The state isn’t merely adding renewables. Two years ago, it announced plans to cut overall energy demand 30 percent by 2030. Hawaii also leads the United States in electric car purchases, thanks to its high gas prices and extensive charging infrastructure, among other incentives. That could reduce disruptions should weather or other events choke Hawaii's fuel supplies.

Getting from here to 100 percent isn't always easy, as Hawaii already has learned. Solar energy grew so quickly in the state that the local utility had to slow down new installations in 2013 amid worries that adding more solar to the grid would destabilize power delivery in some neighborhoods. Research by the National Renewable Energy Lab eventually resolved those technical concerns, allowing Hawaii to continue its surge of new solar installations. Such issues may be mere speed bumps on the road to renewables, but they provide valuable learning opportunities that will pave the way for other states and nations.

VERGE Hawaii will provide an opportunity to showcase all of this — the state’s growing portfolio of renewable resources, energy-independence projects, transportation innovations and sustainable development opportunities. And it will bring its business, innovation and investment communities together with their counterparts from Asia and the mainland. It should be a great convergence of technologies and talent.

 “VERGE Hawaii gives Hawaii a unique opportunity to leverage its role as an energy innovation leader and international test bed,” Luis Salaveria, director of the state's Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, told the Honolulu Star Advertiser the other day. “We are excited about the opportunity to bring together some of the brightest minds in the clean energy and sustainability movements.”

Mahalo, Mr. Salaveria. We’re excited, too.