Wednesday, 20 March 2013

When islands bicker..

The flow of carbon emissions from extraction to consumer. 
We all know that efforts to sow together a global climate change accord have repeatedly come apart at the seams, apparently because of short-sighted national interests. It's called the 'tragedy of the commons' - why should country C (let's call them China..) hold back on its CO2 emissions, when the country U (mmm... maybe the US?) has benefited so much from their inglorious track record of global pollution? And why should country U have to keep cutting its use of the planet's carbon sinks, when country C is so recklessly expanding its use of the same (despite the fact that in a globalized economy the emissions belong to everyone..)

What's not so apparent is that those same arguments, being used by global actors in the tragic drama we call 'climate change', are also being flung around on a much smaller stage - by those those living on some of the islands sitting on the very front-line of global warming. The Hawaiian Islands are just such a provincial venue, and the drama being played out there is a riveting (and increasingly important) one.

Here, mid-Pacific, is a scatter of volcanic isles, grouped together as a US state, but making somewhat different strokes. Islands, moreover, that while an intrinsic part of the US, remain physically (and culturally) separate from it. Here, a developed-world economy is sagging under the impact of rising and volatile fossil fuel prices, while sweating-it-out under the shadow of looming climate change. If anywhere serves as a model for how to wrest collective action from a diverse set of actors - and so avert the insidious gathering  threat of global warming - it has to be Hawaii.

Reading the omens

And the omens from this small community of 'island nations' are decidedly mixed - mirroring the wider confusion, complacency and conflict witnessed on the global stage. The opening act was great - the State of Hawaii saw the writing on the wall from the 2008 oil price hike, and committed itself to a powerful vision for collective action - the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative. This looks to a 40% reduction in energy coming from fossil fuels, in favour of renewables, and a 30% cut in energy use through increased efficiency. All to be done and dusted by 2030 - an exciting, if exacting, journey towards decarbonising the Aloha State.

The problem is that Hawaii's islands aren't an homogenous set of blended tropical beaches, pineapple plantations populated by identikit citizens. The crowded island of Oahu, the major tourist draw, has the bulk of the state's population, as well as its highest energy consumption (thanks to the capital Honolulu). But Oahu also has the smallest potential for renewable energy sources. The largest island, Hawaii Island (more commonly called Big Island in the state), meanwhile, has plenty of geothermal heat (thanks to its three active volcanoes), but is not so well-endowed with wind resources. And the islands of Lanai, Maui and Molokai have some great wind resources, but only small populations, and are separated from Oahu by 30-80 miles of sea.

Should Big Wind & Big Solar replace Big Oil?

Put it all together (and there are plans to do just that, with an undersea power cable network linking the islands) and there is more than enough renewable energy to meet the needs of all Hawaiians. But the unhappy accidents of geography are spilling into inter-island tensions. Plans for a mega-wind farm on Lanai, that will feed Oahu's energy-hungry residents, have already kicked up a lot of dust with those living on the island. Why should they have to see their island forested with giant wind turbines, when most of the energy will be exported to Honolulu - and most of the profits to the island's richest landowner?
Auhi Wind Farm on Maui

More sour grapes are coming to the fore when it comes to plans for a biofuel plant on the Big Island. Big Island has the most land, and can grow the crops to feed the plant, which will produce biodiesel to replace the dirty diesel oil currently being burnt for electricity. According to the regulated power market rules, that will mean rate rises for those living there. But with the island already having the highest electricity rates in the state, Big Island residents aren't happy. They have been hit harder by the recession than their Oahu compatriots, and feel less able to bare these new costs. They want Oahu rate-payers to pay the lion's share, as the biofuel plant will be helping the parent utility - Hawaiian Electric - to meet its targets for renewable energy generation.

And there is another tussle in the offing over one of Hawaii's most contested of resources - its land. Large-scale renewable energy schemes favoured by utilities, such as solar parks and wind farms, gobble up large tracts of land. And Maui island has just set aside 1,400 acres of its scarce land to be leased for such projects. For the  Department of Hawaiian Home Land, it will be a great revenue-earner. For the utility, MECO, it is land necessary for hosting all the outsourced renewables projects it needs for it to hit its 50MW clean energy target. But for many Maui  islanders, it is taking land away from landless residents, who have long been waiting, in vain, for the land to be allocated for small farms.

In short, the grand technological plans of Hawaii's government, regulators and utilities, for switching to a clean energy future - worked out in reports and analyses and well-meaning initiatives - is starting to look a little rough-and-ready. The script isn't being followed, and the actors aren't following directions. Worse, the audience is getting restless, and starting to heckle from the back. But the difficulties now becoming apparent in Hawaii's avant-garde stage production, 'Dealing with Climate Change', aren't cause for storming out of the show.

Learning the beauty of small

What's happening in Hawaii, and other brave island nations grappling with the climate change, is the illumination of the difficulties we'll all be dealing with soon - as we switch from tinkering with renewable energy, to fully taking the plunge. As such, it important for both Hawaiians and the wider world to understand what is working, and what isn't - and why.

And one of the strongest lessons coming from the Aloha State has to be that the people have a vote too. If the people aren't on board, the whole enterprise could come to a halt, or stutter along so slowly that we can never gain the momentum of action required. They need to be told the truth. And the truth is this journey will jolt us out of our comfortable ruts.

Switching to clean energy will require a major overhaul of our use of - and relationship to - energy. The ways in which we work, consume, travel and play will be reworked. The landscape around will be inevitably be altered and morphed, as we shift from plundering intensive fossil fuel to harvesting extensive natural energy. There will be benefits - cleaner air, cheaper more secure energy, the empowerment that comes from producing your own energy...and maybe even saving the planet.

But the transition won't come painlessly. Our behaviour will have to change, our vistas will be violated and power-brokers will have to let go of their grip. The noises coming from Hawaii are telling us that forcing technocratic visions down people's throats won't work. Transformative action needs the inspirational drive that comes from such visions, but it must swell upwards from the roots first. Maybe the message from Hawaii is that we need to start thinking small in order to act big.


  1. Great post Martin! As a resident of Maui, and a firm believer in climate change and the urgency of getting off the fossil fuel tit, our little battle about big energy issues is mind boggling. Hawaii is also a spectrum of the two extremes of civic ideology; big and lucrative business interests vs. native NIMBY naturalists (not in my backyard).

    While most residents of the state fall somewhere in the pragmatic middle - unfortunately the extremes on either side are dominating the debate and reinforcing gridlock.

    1. Maybe the best way to unlock the grid (as it were), is to open the floodgates to self-generation - enabling the mass deployment of small-scale solar to all-and-sundry (for every home, every business and every school). Bring wind in as a small-scale community resource that is owned by the community, not big business. Demonstrate the very real practical benefits of self-generation. Put communities in charge of what gets deployed locally.

      Once people realize the clean energy transition works for them, and that they are in charge,they will be better positioned to make some of the harder choices over things like inter-island connections, large-scale windfarms, use of land for renewables..and come up with socially sanctioned solutions.

      The Germans have made a good start to this - much of their solar and wind resources are self-owned or community operated (

      But even there, there are conflicts between the land-hunger of renewables, and conservationists who see the threat to landscapes & wildlife. There are no easy choices out there..