One State Is Now America’s Clean Energy Paradise
Americans don’t have to imagine living in a nation where one in three people has rooftop solar power, 15% of new cars are electric, and massive batteries store energy for use after the sun sets.
All they need to do is visit Hawaii.
Hawaii promised to be "Coal free by '23," and in just 21 years, state law requires the use of only clean energy. This month, a massive 185 megawatt battery near Honolulu hummed into full operation, bringing the aim closer to reality.
Director of the Hawai'i Climate Coalition and board member of the Blue Planet Foundation Jeff Mikulina remarked, "If you've been to Hawaii, you've seen a renewable future—and it's paradise."
About 20 miles west of Honolulu, the Kapolei Energy Storage facility is hidden away on eight acres of industrial land. Above all, it appears to be 158 white storage huts, roughly the size of shipping containers, arranged in a tidy row on concrete platforms.
185 megawatts of power, or 17% of the island of O'ahu, could be stored in these lithium iron phosphate batteries for three hours.
Grid-scale energy storage devices of this type are becoming more and more prevalent in the United States and are essential to the transition to ever-higher percentages of wind and solar electricity. Hawaii, though, is a different story.
Colton Ching, senior vice president of planning and technology at Hawaiian Electric, stated that "this system is larger as a percentage of the electricity system than any other battery in the world." 95% of the people in the state are connected to the utility for power.
Hawaii lacks fossil fuels but is endowed with an abundance of wind, sun, and geothermal energy. Rather, over 80% of the state's energy is produced by an oil supertanker that docks at a refinery close to the Honolulu port every ten days, according to Mikulina.
Because almost all of that oil is imported, mostly from Argentina and Libya, it is up to 6,000 miles away, making energy in Hawaii costly and vulnerable to both natural disasters and geopolitical unrest.
He declared, "We're just one supertanker away from becoming Amish." "We have enough oil in storage to last us 25 days."
Now that energy from Hawaii is returning home, the state hopes that this will provide stability, lower costs, and a cleaner environment.
The six major islands that make up Hawaii each have their own independent electricity grid. Currently, 32% of the energy in the state comes from renewable sources. Hawaii now relies on its seven wind farms for 6.25% of its electricity needs. About 30% of the electricity on Hawaii's Big Island is generated geothermallyby a facility that receives heat from the Kilauea volcano, which erupted in September.
There is also an increasing number of electric cars there. In Hawaii last year, 15% of newly sold cars were electric.
Mikulina stated it makes sense. "The biggest obstacles of cost and range anxiety aren't here because gas is expensive and we don't have to drive very far," he stated.
Still, solar energy sets the state apart, particularly in terms of its source.
Hawaii came up with a creative plan in 2022 to make up for closing its final coal plant. State authorities developed the Battery Bonus program, which provided financial help to homes installing battery storage and rooftop solar.
In return, the home provides two hours of electricity back into the grid, ideally between 6 and 8:30 p.m., when Hawaii needs power because the sun has set.
Maui contributed 6.29 megawatts, and the island of Oahu added 40 megawatts by the end of 2023.
More complex and less customer-friendly standards were devised for 2024, causing controversy. The island's solar business has requested the state Public Utilities Commission to reevaluate the changes.
There are several utility-scale solar farms in the state as well. The Waikoloa solar plus storage project, the largest on Hawaii's Big Island, went online last year and currently provides over 7% of the island's electricity. "People's bills are already being lowered by at least $5 a month, and it's in the middle of a lava field," Mikulina added.
However, the astounding thing about Hawaii's solar situation is the sheer number of solar-equipped homes. Rooftop solar power is installed on a record 37% of Hawaiian houses, making up an amazing 44% of the state's renewable energy.
Australia is the only country in the world that comes close to it, with 26% of its energy coming from solar panels installed on private roofs.
“We frequently speak with those guys. Their problems are remarkably like ours,” Ching remarked.
Hawaii is pleased with its current level of renewable energy. But it will require much more, and rapidly, to meet its state mandate.
That’s where batteries come in.
Nuclear, hydroelectric, and geothermal energy are the three forms of carbon-neutral power that run around the clock. However, expanding any of them would be politically challenging, thus the only options left to satisfy the country's energy ambitions are wind and solar.
The sun doesn't constantly shine, and the wind doesn't always blow, as critics often point out. Batteries on a grid scale balance things out. The batteries charge up when there is more energy available from solar and wind power than can be consumed, and they discharge when the sun sets, or the wind picks up.
When solar energy falls off the grid at dusk and when everyone eventually turns out the lights to go to bed, these batteries' enormous energy storage capacity can fill the void.
Hawaii, though, is a different story. It has so much solar power that it isn't always able to consume the entire amount that the 200,000 solar-powered residences feed into the system.
To maintain equilibrium, grid operators must "curtail," or turn off, either utility-scale wind or solar power.
O’ahu will be able to add 10% more solar power without worrying that it may overload the system, thanks to the new Kapolei battery.
For visitors, not much will alter. The ocean will be cool, the air will stay warm, and the resorts will be alluring.
According to Mikulina, Hawaii will serve as a model state for the rest of the country. "We have the potential to serve as a living laboratory for clean energy."