Native Hawaiians reclaim energy sovereignty
On the Hawaiian island of Moloka‘i, a group of volunteers is tirelessly working toward 100% locally owned clean energy.
Why it matters: They are reclaiming energy sovereignty for the area's largely Native Hawaiian population.
How it works: Since launching in 2020, the Ho’āhu Energy Cooperative has installed rooftop solar panels on a handful of off-grid homes, trained local residents to become solar installers, and secured a contract awarded for Hawaii’s first community-owned renewable energy resource project.
The latest: Last month, the volunteer organization submitted the Pālā‘au Solar and Kualapu‘u Solar projects contract to the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission, with a decision expected by the end of the year.
- Public benefit corporations Shake Energy Collaborative and Mana Pacific are signed on as project developers.
- Representatives of Ho’āhu tell Axios that, if approved, these projects will serve around 1,500 households or 20% of the island's population of about 7,400.
What they're saying: "We can build the best project that has the least amount of harm to our environment, because we understand, as a people, how important our environment is. We depend on it," Ho’āhu Energy Cooperative's co-founder “Aunty” Lori Buchanan tells Axios.
- Buchanan, who is Native Hawaiian from Moloka‘i, cites how burning fossil fuels for energy consumption drives climate change, which she sees as affecting the food security of her community.
- Over 60% of Moloka‘i's residents have Native Hawaiian heritage, according to 2010 Census data.
Meanwhile: Buchanan is quick to point out that Hawaiian Electric, which is headquartered on another island, is currently the only supplier of grid electricity on Moloka‘i.
- "When I think about energy equity, I think about the one energy provider having that control, over a people that don't have control," Buchanan says. "It's like oppression to me."
- According to their own estimates, Hawaiian Electric reported reaching 32% in electricity generated by renewable resources in 2022.
Zoom in: Hawaii had the highest household electricity price among U.S. states last year, according to 2023 Statista data, with electricity rates surging statewide by 34% in April, compared with 2021 costs, per the New York Times.
Yes, but: Ho’āhu's project developer Shake Energy Collaborative's Ali Andrews tells Axios they're aiming for at least 20% savings for subscribers of the pending community solar projects.
- More than 20% of the island's residents live below the poverty line, per the 2021 census.
Zoom out: Kilia Purdy-Avelino, a Ho’āhu Energy Cooperative volunteer board member, tells Axios she has lived off-grid on a Moloka‘i homestead — or ancestral trust land set aside for Native Hawaiians through federal legislation — for nearly a decade.
- At first, her family relied on an at-home solar system for charging smaller appliances — until it stopped working, which saw them switching to power supplied by generators. (Those also broke down repeatedly, which was costlier than she expected.)
The intrigue: Having recently completed Ho’āhu's micro-grid training program, a big difference she's seen with the cooperative is how Native Hawaiian homesteaders have been involved from "the very beginning."
- "In the past, organizations overstepped ... whether they [were] aware of our homestead organizations or not, they sometimes just [went] after the land," Purdy-Avelino says. "We wanted to be proactive and have representation."
The bottom line: "Traditional Hawaiian culture, that's the way it was. You don't do things for yourself," Purdy-Avelino tells Axios. "'Laulima' means 'many hands.' Everybody helps each other, so everybody moves forward together."