KAHULUI, Maui — Hawaii residents and politicians need to answer fundamental questions about the future they want to create for the next generation before they can move forward with plans to make the state more energy resilient and sustainable.
That was the message delivered Wednesday to open the three-day Maui Energy Conference, which featured a variety of panel discussions with clean-energy advocates, utility executives, government officials and nonprofit leaders.
As the state pursues efforts to reduce its carbon footprint in the electricity and transportation sectors while working to grow more of its own food and adapt to the effects of climate change, there are opportunities to simultaneously build a foundation for healthier, happier communities, according to keynote speaker Gil Penalosa of the Canadian nonprofit 8 80 Cities.
“We have got to open our minds,” he told several hundred people attending the conference. “The general interest must prevail over the particular interest.”
Energy sustainability and resiliency are intrinsically linked to the well being of the people in a given locale, Penalosa said.
Creating more walkable communities, for instance, can decrease the amount of cars on the road — alleviating traffic and the use of fossil fuels — while making it more attractive for the public to be active, which studies have shown reduces obesity, anxiety and depression, he said.
But it takes leadership from elected officials to chart such a course and make decisions to build sidewalks, establish bike lanes and add parks.
“Change is not unanimous. There will always be concern,” Penalosa said. “If you want change to be unanimous you have to water it down so much that it won’t be change.”
He painted a picture for those attending the conference to consider.
“What if our children and youth could actually get to places on their own without having to have anyone driving them there and what if on their way there they could connect with nature?” Penalosa said. “What if our older adults could age in place like they want to?”
He noted that Hawaii is aging faster than the rest of the country — one in three will be over 65 by 2040 — and has struggled with a growing obesity problem. He also underscored that only 6 percent of the population in the islands uses public transportation.
“We’ve got to make our streets safe,” Penalosa said. “It’s not that hard. But we have to make pedestrians a priority.”
Later in the daylong conference, panelists were asked how they thought Hawaii was doing at becoming more energy resilient and sustainable.
“Are we doing enough in Hawaii to really take on the issue of climate change both as a threat and as an opportunity?” asked Kauai County Energy and Sustainability Coordinator Ben Sullivan, who was moderating a discussion.
“The answer is no,” said Scott Seu, Hawaiian Electric Co.’s senior vice president of public affairs.
“I know we’re all conscious of the need to do it,” he said. “But as far as are we doing enough concrete to plan our infrastructure and plan how our communities plan for that, I don’t see it happening as aggressive as it needs to be.”
Seu said the policies have to be driven at the highest levels if that’s going to change.
In 2015, Gov. David Ige signed a bill into law that requires the state to obtain 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2045.
As utility companies work to achieve that — and they’re actually ahead of schedule — attention has turned to the transportation sector, which comprises roughly one-third of the state’s overall energy usage.
House Bill 1850, which cleared the House last week and is moving forward in the Senate, would lay out plans for clean ground transportation, with the ultimate goal of avoiding any fossil fuels.
Lawmakers are also considering legislation to address deficiencies in the state’s plans for fuel shortages and other energy emergencies.
Senate Bill 909 would provide policy guidance on preparing for, responding to, recovering from and mitigating any actual or potential energy supply disruption or shortage to preserve the state’s energy security and to ensure that fuel products and energy resources are made available to emergency services and the public in an orderly, efficient and safe manner.
Mark Glick, who headed the state energy office before stepping down to work with the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute, a research unit of the University of Hawaii, said it’s important for lawmakers to pass the bill to boost energy resiliency.
Jonathan Koehn, the regional sustainability coordinator for Boulder, Colorado, said it’s no longer a question of “if we will see an energy transition” but when and how.
“It is so much more than electricity,” he said, underscoring the important energy decisions that need to be made in other sectors, from agriculture to transportation.
Koehn moderated a panel featuring Paul Brewbaker of TZ Economics, Kyle Datta of Ulupono Initiative, Jeffrey Pearson of the state Commission on Water Resource Management and Rick Volner of Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company.
They discussed how energy costs have affected the seed industry, for instance, and how the amount of agricultural land in production in Hawaii has fallen over the years.
“It comes down to leadership,” Datta said, adding that the public may have to get used to new fees to protect watersheds, for example, much as they have adjusted to fees on their electric bills for energy efficiency.
The conference continues Thursday and wraps up Friday. Information about the panelists, the program and schedule can be found on its website.