Empowering Residents: Community-Engaged Approaches to Renewable Energy

Jun 05, 2023

Highlights from the 2023 Hawaii Energy Conference

It’s been 15 years since the launch of the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative that officially formed the collaboration between the State of Hawaii and the U.S. Department of Energy to reduce the state’s dependence on imported fossil fuels. Since that time, we’ve witnessed the historic 2015 law that mandates 100 percent renewable energy by 2045 — the first in the nation — as well as increases in the number of utility-scale projects, policy initiatives, and partnerships contributing to the state’s clean energy and decarbonization goals. 

While much of the focus these last 15 years has been on the physical infrastructure, we have also seen how social infrastructure can impact whether a project is successful. This was the focus of a panel discussion titled, “Empowering Residents: Community-Engaged Approaches to Renewable Energy,” sponsored by Ulupono Initiative at the 2023 Hawaii Energy Conference.

Moderated by Ulupono President Murray Clay, the panel also featured Leilani Chow, energy sovereignty programs lead with Sustʻāinable Molokai; Rebecca Dayhuff-Matshima, vice president of resource procurement for Hawaiian Electric; Mark Glick, chief energy officer for the State of Hawaii; and Nicola Park, director of Hawaii for Clearway Energy Group. Each panelist was selected for his or her unique perspective on community engagement.

For Leilani, she not only represents an island within a county within a state, but has also been working on energy programs for the past 13 years as part of Sustʻāinable Molokai. She shared insights from the development of the Molokai Community Energy Resilience Plan, which she described as “the opportunity for Molokai to do community-led, community-based planning for the kind of renewable energy projects they're willing to say yes to.”  She further explained that “community expertise also informs how projects can be more sustainable solutions versus just addressing energy needs. How energy projects can support a community's emergency preparedness, the community's water access. Energy touches on everything. And without the community expertise, you're not seeing the full picture of how energy projects impact the community's lives in all the ways that it does.”

Representing the utility, Rebecca recognized that a one-size-fits-all community plan doesn’t work the same for everyone. “Community looks at their benefits differently, and what each community wants or sees as a benefit is really unique to that community's needs, and only that community knows what their needs are and what would benefit them,” said Rebecca. “I think a lot of it is well-intentioned, and we might think that a benefit would be great, but that may not be what that community needs.”  

For developers who are often tasked with conducting community outreach for their respective projects, Nicola shared what has worked for Clearway’s projects in Hawaii, such as educational partnerships with landowner Kamehameha Schools and nonprofit Blue Planet Foundation to create STEM-based curriculum and offer internships. She also highlighted Clearway’s  future plans to possibly include incorporating agriculture practices at their solar facilities as a way “for the communities to really begin to embrace these types of projects and not see them as an opposition to the use of agricultural lands because farmers locally will benefit from direct access to essentially free land and with existing infrastructure such as access and road security, in some cases, water and access to longer term leases.”

At a holistic level, Mark touched upon the big issue of workforce development for the clean energy industry. “We've created the energy segment of the Good Jobs Hawaii program, and we've just launched the clean energy sector partnership steering committee, cross-sector throughout the islands,” said Mark. “We hope to be able to come up with the appropriate plans and pathways to engage with communities to essentially train and place. In this Jobs grant program, we're supposed to place at least 75% or 400 people (in this initial phase).”

The hour-long panel session concluded with Murray challenging the audience to flip their mindset in that the community needs to realize it really isn’t choosing between a renewable energy project and an empty piece of land. Murray offered a new way to look at it — the renewable energy project is actually a replacement for an existing polluting resource, like a fossil fuel plant. “If we systematically say no to renewable energy projects, or even if we say no a little bit too often, we're deciding to burn more fossil fuels. And is it fair to force those communities to continue to host fossil fuel plants because we don’t want to allow something cleaner to be built?”

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