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Why Maui Folks Still Work Fridays

The story of a lost opportunity.

April 10, 2014
Chris Mentzel - Contributing Writer | Kihei • Clean Energy Maui , Maui Weekly

Most of Friday's wages go for the electric bill. And it doesn't have to be.

Maui's average electric bill is more than double the national average. This creates unnecessary hardships for households and is built into the prices of many goods and services. More than half of that money goes to Saudi Arabia and other oil-exporting countries.

Twenty-three years ago, weeks after my arrival to Maui from cloud-covered Germany, I had a meeting with the president of Maui Electric.

"Why don't you have solar panels to make electricity?" was my question.

And presented the president a two-page plan to prove my point.

"You could put solar panels on roofs and pump water up Haleakala," I said. "Then run the water through generators whenever you need energy."

I was thrilled to speak with the president. He had kindly invited me over to the office, after he saw my plan at the BEACON conference about the future of Maui.

He was truly interested, and we looked at the economics. Since the sun delivers all the power for free, the only cost was building the system. And that cost looked overwhelming. A couple years later, the Grand Wailea would be built for the same $700 million that I had calculated for the system.

As we broke it down, we found that the construction could be paid for, over time, at the current electric rate of 24 cent. The sun could produce electricity at the same cost as the diesel generators and it wouldn't increase in price. Now we are facing a rate of 48 cents.

Something else showed up that didn't concern us back then. I remember, those were scary times back then, with all the financial instability, wars and environmental worries. It looked like we were running into a financial meltdown--if not the end of the world. So it didn't merit much of a discussion that the system would be paid off in the distant future of 2011 and produce electricity for free going forward.

When our meeting was over, we shook hands, both knowing that this plan was realistic, yet beyond the powers of a local manager. The papers were probably shelved in the archives of Maui Electric, and diesel generators are delivering our power to this day.

In the 23 years since that meeting, I estimate that Maui Electric has burned $4,000 million worth of fossil fuel. Customers' bills have more than doubled. Maui's solar industry, while leading the nation, has installed only 7 percent of the capacity needed. And without a gigantic investment into storage, solar installs will hit a wall soon.

What went wrong and could we do it today?

It's not about technology. Solar and pumped storage worked great back then and even better today. It's not the fault of Maui Electric's people, who are doing a great job keeping the lights on. It's partially about money, but now we have four benevolent billionaires in shouting distance and a more sophisticated financial market. If we want to build an integrated system now, we need leadership and vision.

At the end of Maui's energy conference last week, I had the opportunity to speak with the amazing Connie Lau. She runs both Hawaiian Electric and American Savings Bank and is one of the most brilliant and accomplished women in the world. A great leader, she took the courageous step of co-creating the Hawai'i Clean Energy Initiative in 2009.

"Could you invest a billion dollars in Maui Electric to get us away from oil?" I asked her. Her answer was a cautious "no," pointing to the government's PUC and the long history of buying renewable energy only from outside sellers. That reflected the tenor of the conference, which was all about shrinking the utility. I certainly hope this is not the last word.

Perhaps the Kaua'i Island Utility Cooperative is on the better path, heavily investing in their own storage and generation. Having the vision and leadership to grow renewable energy is inspiring, and one can feel the vigor of their management.

I still hope that Maui Electric will reconsider my old plan. If not, maybe Maui County can fill the void--or Larry, Oprah, Pierre or Steve.

If Maui would build it now, electricity costs would drop and in 10 to 20 years, head towards zero. Then we can take Fridays off.

Waiting another 20 years would be disastrous.



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