The Kaua‘i Island Utility Cooperative held its annual meeting last night in Līhu‘e. It’s the only electric utility in the state that is not part of the Hawai‘i Electric Family. It’s also a national leader when it comes to approaching a goal of 100-percent renewable energy. HPR contributing correspondent Scott Giarman looks at the island’s energy past, present and future from Kaua‘i.
The electrification of Kauai began in 1905 with the construction of a 2.4 megawatt hydroelectric plant. Sugar plantations got further into the electric business by burning bagasse – the plant material by-product of sugar production. As Kauai grew, bagasse and four more small hydroelectric plants had to be supplemented by importing fossil fuels to burn for power. When sugar production ended in the 1990s, more fossil fuels were needed.
The Kaua‘i Island Utility Cooperative’s effort to increase renewable energy started in 2009. Wind power was ruled out because of danger to Kauai’s rare bird population, but solar seemed ideal. Tax incentives led to more than 1200 rooftop solar systems by 2012. KIUC constructed three large solar sites generating a total of 30 megawatts. In 2016, a biomass system producing 7 megawatts came on line. It burns wood chips from locally grown trees and invasive species. Very low polluting, the majority of residue is a non-toxic ash that is used to fertilize the next crop of trees.
KIUC spokesperson Beth Tokioka says that, today, 42% of Kauai’s energy production comes from renewable sources: 7.7 from hydro, 11.4 from biomass and the rest from solar. And the conversion has been relatively fast – as recently as 2011, more than 90% of the island’s electricity came from fossil fuels. Today, KIUC boasts that on a sunny day, the utility can reach 97% renewable output. KIUC’s push toward renewable electricity has been so successful that their original goal of 70% by 2050 has been pushed up to 2030.