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Powering Up: Energy in Hawaii

A Special Report from the State of Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism (DBEDT)

(page 5 of 9)

Robert Johnston and his company, Hawaii Pacific Solar, blanketed the Aiea High School roof with solar panels.

Photo: Olivier Koning

Nature’s Gift: Clean Energy for Hawai‘i

From solar to wind power, businesses and jobs are growing across the state

When the Great Recession hit Maui’s high-end real estate market in 2008, Robert Johnston shuttered his development business and rolled the dice on a fledgling sector: solar energy.

Since then, Johnston’s company, Hawaii Pacific Solar, has seized on this opportunity, amassing an impressive portfolio of commercial solar projects that includes rooftop panels at dozens of Hawai‘i’s schools and military bases. Over the next several months, Hawaii Pacific Solar plans to expand its work crews from 12 to 20 thanks to its growing stockpile of work.

“We started out as a company with a handful of partners working for free,” Johnston said. “We certainly think the future is very bright.”

Hawaii Pacific Solar is one of hundreds of local, national and international companies that are riding Hawai‘i’s clean energy boom. Fueled by favorable legislative changes, attractive state and federal tax incentives and a statewide push to achieve 70 percent energy independence by 2030, the state’s green energy sector is generating tens of millions of dollars in new investment and bringing thousands of new jobs to an economy long dependent on tourism and government spending.

According to the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations’ Hawai‘i Green Jobs Initiative, Hawai‘i’s clean energy sector currently employs 11,145 people. This represents about 2.4 percent of all private jobs statewide and is nearly equivalent to the number of people employed by Hawai‘i’s real estate industry.

And the numbers are growing.

According to the Labor Department, the number of clean energy jobs in Hawai‘i is expected to grow by 26 percent by the end of year, which will help offset  job losses in Hawai‘i’s traditional construction sector, where the unemployment rate is running around 30 percent.

“Clean technology represents both an opportunity to revive and modernize Hawai‘i’s infrastructure,” said John White, executive director of the Pacific Resource Partnership, a consortium of the Hawai‘i Carpenters Union and the state’s unionized contractors. “Just as important, it provides a path to economic growth for the state.”

Solar projects are just part of the picture. Today, there are enough clean-energy projects on the drawing board to handle up to 40 percent of Hawai‘i’s current electricity demands.

The Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism (DBEDT) currently is tracking project activity from more than 80 utility-scale renewable-energy projects featuring Hawai‘i’s diverse array of renewable sources, including wind, sun, hydropower, biofuel, waste-to-energy, geothermal, ocean thermal and wave energy.

Boston-based First Wind said it plans to create an additional 8-10 permanent jobs in Hawai‘i and work opportunities for an estimated 180 construction employees as the company completes its large wind farm projects on Maui and O‘ahu’s North Shore.

Tom Loudat

That work will also provide benefits for about 50 local businesses that are part of the supply chain that provides the building materials and services the equipment for the wind farms, which will have the combined capacity of about 150 megawatts or enough energy to meet the needs of about 6 percent of the state’s population.

Kekoa Kaluhiwa, First Wind’s director of external affairs, likens the economic impact of the construction of a large-scale electricity power plant. The added bonus is that it will provide consumers with long-term access to cheaper electricity.

Maui-based Pacific Biodiesel said it plans to add as many as 20 local jobs when the company’s newly completed $12 million Big Island plant ramps up. The clean tech company, which turns used cooking oil into biodiesel that’s blended into conventional diesel, said construction of its new buildings, tanks and other technical equipment is creating another 85 jobs in the Keeau community.

For local economist Tom Loudat,  the benefits go beyond the construction jobs and staffing needed to build and run the new solar, wind and other renewable energy plants. New clean tech projects also benefit the subcontractors and vendors that make up the vast supply chain that serve the new facilities. More important, consumer savings from these new green projects–a big chunk of the $4 billion a year that would otherwise be paid to foreign oil producers–recirculates in Hawai‘i’s economy, he said.

A crew installs rooftop solar panels.

Loudat cites his own example. Several years ago, he installed solar panels and a solar water heater to lower his own energy costs which were running between $300 and $400 a month. His monthly electricity bill now averages about $100 a month. Over the 30-year life of his solar upgrades, Loudat will save thousands of dollars–money that he can use to purchase more locally sold goods and services or reinvest in his business. When you project these kinds of savings onto macro scale, it becomes a huge driver for Hawai‘i’s economy.

“This is a gift that will keep on giving back to the local economy for 30 years,” Loudat said.

Source: Hawaii’s Green Workforce: A Baseline Assessment, December 2010 (Department of Labor and Industrial Relations)

Source: Sizing the Clean Economy, August 2011 (Brookings Institute)

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