May 30, 2023 - Energy & Environment

Native Hawaiians reclaim energy sovereignty

A woman stands in front of stacks of solar panels

Buchanan stands in front of stacks of donated, used solar panels. Photo: Hoʻāhu Energy Cooperative

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."

State of play: In 2014, Hawaii set a goal of 100% renewable energy for electricity by the year 2045, becoming the first U.S. state to do so.

  • 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."

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