Postcard from the future
It's 2045 and Hawaii is running on 100% renewable power.
Greetings from sunny Honolulu. My wife and I are here celebrating our 40th wedding anniversary, though since we were married in 2003 it’s really our 42nd.
It certainly doesn’t seem like it was that long ago, and it was even more recently that I was writing about the arrival in Hawaii of Solar Impulse II, a solar-powered airplane making the first round-the-world flight without fuel. That was July 3, 2015 and it was quite an accomplishment, setting a variety of records and giving rise to Hawaii’s establishment of that date as Solar Impulse Day.
Of course, many things have changed since then, and not just my transition to retirement.
Thirty years ago, the power industry looked a lot different, especially in Hawaii, which was still getting the vast majority of its power from diesel generators. I just looked it up and back in 2015, more than 70 percent of Hawaii’s electricity came from petroleum; coal was a distant second at 13.7 percent. (Can you imagine?!) Renewables came to just under 12 percent, and that includes hydro and biomass.
That was the year, though, that the state passed its landmark legislation targeting 100 percent renewable power by 2045. As I recall, it was right around the same time that US oil and gas production was really booming thanks to the combination of directional drilling and hydraulic fracturing. I wonder if anyone had second thoughts about going all-renewable in that context, but then Hawaii was hands-down the most expensive state in the US for electricity.
So here we are 30 years later and from what I saw from the plane when we arrived (i.e., solar panels on every rooftop), the transition to renewable power seems all but complete.
It wasn’t easy. It took a combination of technological advances, policy changes and new business models. And there was certainly some amount of pain in the industry.
On the technology side, one big challenge was improving the efficiency of PV modules. I remember the cost had come down dramatically in the 80s and then again in the early 2000s, but by 2015 a typical module was still only converting around 20 percent of the sun’s energy into electric power.
The other critical advance was in energy storage. Bringing down the cost of modules and storage shortened the payback significantly and made solar a viable option for the mass market. Now just about everyone I know has a PV array on their roof.
As is often the case, though, the technology was ahead of the regulatory environment.
If you’re as old as I am, you might remember the so-called utility “death spiral,” which said utilities would not survive the trend toward self-generation. It’s true, the industry was looking at a seemingly existential threat, but you know what they say about necessity. Eventually new business models emerged. Utilities survived and even thrived as they capitalized on their incumbent position to offer new services like installation and maintenance for solar installations.
All in all, everything seems to have worked out fairly well. Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s an umbrella drink waiting for me.
Cheers, Hawaii. You deserve an umbrella drink of your own.