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Maui's Bumpy Road to Renewable Energy

The need and the will are there. So what's the holdup?

(page 3 of 3)

Developing an Industry

“Our whole future rests with the kids,” says Tavares. “If the kids can get tuned in and turned on by this stuff, then we’re going to be on our way to success.”

Maui Economic Development Board (MEDB), a nonprofit organization aimed toward creating a balanced economy, has been heavily involved in this area, trying to reach kids from K-12 and beyond. “We look at it like a pipeline. We see ourselves as stopping the leaks or putting them back into the pipeline,” says Jeanne Skog, MEDB’s president and CEO. MEDB is trying to promote science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills in schools to promote the high-tech job market of the future. Programs are industry driven; MEDB goes to local companies and asks them what skill sets they’re looking for.

Maui Community College (MCC) has taken the initiative by offering two-year associate’s degrees in Sustainable Technology. This spring, 10 students graduated with that degree, including Chris Taylor, who heard about the program through a friend. “Some people think it’s a new field, you’re going to get this degree and not be able to do anything, but that’s not the case,” he says. “It’s really just taking off. There’s such demand for green-collar workers.”

While at MCC, Taylor interned at Hnu Photonics in Wailuku. Dan O’Connell, president of Hnu Photonics, says the company offers internships to interested college students, whether they’re at MCC or any other college. O’Connell says, “Our goal is to grow and build an industry that doesn’t exist, so it’s important to be part of the process of offering exposure, experience and training … that will support the industry that we’re trying to be part of and grow.”

MCC also offers an Agriculture and Natural Resources associate’s degree, which covers renewable energy and biofuel crops. The degree programs have been spearheaded by the Sustainable Living Institute of Maui (SLIM), a learning center founded by MCC, Maui Land & Pineapple Co. (NYSE:MLP) and Earth University. MLP provided the seed funding but the institute is housed at the college. SLIM currently pursues grants to conduct research, and then bring that research knowledge to the community through education and community activities.

Alex de Roode, executive director of SLIM, says the degrees were an industry-driven process. They asked private and public entities what skill sets and credentials they were looking for. “Based on that we tried to cater the degree to really emphasize those areas so when they come out of school they’re desirable,” de Roode says.

De Roode would like to see MCC turned into a demonstration site for renewable energy. “We’re really looking at doing a whole model for energy efficiency and renewable energy production on campus and use that as an educational tool for our students and other people who come to the campus,” he says.

Renewable Energy a Priority

In October 2007, Maui County and MEDB held an Energy Expo, showing residents what technologies were available and what was in the works. Out of the expo came five working groups that will create the blueprint for renewable energy in the county. They cover renewable resource development, workforce, infrastructure, energy efficiency in public buildings and reduction in greenhouse gases.

“[The] common thread among all of the working groups that we have set up here is to look for ways that government can get out of the way and actually encourage, expedite, remove those barricades and barriers to renewable energy coming here,” says Tavares. “We want to be a renewable-energy-friendly place to do business.”

For companies that want to install large renewable-energy projects, there’s a process that needs to be undertaken. It includes land use permits, purchase power agreements with the utility, approval by the state PUC, environmental impact statements and more. The community needs to get involved, too, and that cannot happen with a singular announcement.

“It’s a very delicate process, and it is very much a process,” says MEDB’s Skog. “Even for us who live and breathe it, it’s not easily understood.”

MECO faces the challenge of being a reliable source of power, even when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. It also has to deal with environmentalists. “We do have some challenges with our environmentalists that are not readily able and willing to support everything that we do, and we recognize that,” says MECO’s Reinhardt. The utility needs to communicate and educate the public in this process. “We have the same goal in mind, which is to be sustainable and to move our direction to renewable energy.”

Power producers understand that Maui is a special place whose natural environment needs to be maintained. “I think there’s a certain amount of that process that you have to go through so that you can do the project properly,” says First Wind’s Gresham. “But at the same time, it would be very nice if there were a way to coordinate the permitting activities among the various agencies, whether they be state or county, so that you can do things in a more parallel fashion rather than a sequential fashion. … We need those protections but maybe we need to prioritize it. We need to look at renewable energy as something critically important to the state.”

The most complex issue may lie at home.

Back at Ulupalakua Ranch, Sumner Erdman says if society won’t part with its electronics and the creature comforts of the 21st century, then a price will have to be paid. He understands that there are going to be some big structures spinning on his land. Before partnering with Shell, Erdman recalls going to a Mainland ranch with a wind turbine, taking a picture of it and putting it on his computer screensaver.

“I looked at it for months every day to tell myself this was the exchange to try and survive,” he says. “I had to be comfortable and accept that there was this big tower. And I do, and I accept that. We, as a state, we have to think. We have two choices: Stop using our lights, our televisions, our cell phone, stop using electricity, or look at alternative forms of electricity.”

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