The last bits of ash and greenhouse gases from Hawaii’s only coal-fired power plant crept into the environment this week when the state’s dirtiest power source burned its last bits of combustible.
The last shipment of coal arrived in the islands at the end of July and the AES Corporation coal plant closed on Thursday after 30 years of operation. The facility produced up to a fifth of the electricity of Oahu, the most populous island in a state of nearly 1.5 million people.
“It’s really about reducing greenhouse gases,” Hawaii Governor David Ige said in an interview with The Associated Press. “And this coal plant is one of the biggest emitters. Taking it offline means we will stop the 1.5 million metric tons of greenhouse gases that have been emitted each year. »
Like other islands in the Pacific, the Hawaiian Range has experienced the cascading effects of climate change. The state is experiencing destruction of coral reefs due to bleaching associated with rising ocean temperatures, rapid sea level rise, more intense storms and drought which increase the risk of fires of forest in the state.
In 2020, the Hawaii Legislature passed legislation banning the use of coal for power generation beginning in 2023. Hawaii mandated a transition to 100% renewable energy by 2045 and was the first State to set such a goal.
But critics say that while shutting down the state’s dirtiest power source is ultimately a good decision, doing it now isn’t. Renewable sources intended to replace coal power are not yet online due to permitting delays, contract issues and pandemic-related supply chain issues. Thus, the state will instead burn more expensive oil which is only slightly less polluting than coal.
“If you think climate change is going to end because we shut down that coal plant, today is a great day for you,” said Democratic Senator Glenn Wakai, chairman of the Committee on Economic Development, Tourism and of technology. “But if you pay an electricity bill, it’s a disastrous day for you.”
The end of coal and the added cost of oil will mean a 7% increase in electricity bills for consumers who already face the highest energy and living costs in the country.
“What we’re doing…is transitioning from the cheapest fossil fuel to the most expensive fossil fuel,” Wakai said. “And we’re going to be subject to geopolitical issues over oil prices as well as access to oil. “
The closure of the AES coal plant means Hawaii joins 10 other states without large coal-fired power plants, according to data from Global Energy Monitor, a nonprofit that advocates for a global transition to clean energy. Rhode Island and Vermont have never had coal-fired power plants.
While Hawaii is the first state to fully implement a coal ban, a handful of others have already passed laws. The 2015 law in Oregon, the first state to enact a ban, is not effective until 2035. Washington state’s 2020 coal ban begins in 2025. California, Maine and Texas are among the states that have restricted the construction of new coal-fired power plants.
The number of coal-fired units in the United States peaked in 2001 at around 1,100. More than half have ceased operation since then, with most switching to the more cost-effective natural gas.
Data from the United States Energy Information Administration shows that oil generated about two-thirds of Hawaii’s electricity in 2021. This makes Hawaii the most oil-dependent state, even though it tries to make a rapid transition to renewable energies.
Hawaii already gets about 40% of its electricity from sustainable sources, including wind, solar, hydroelectric and geothermal.
State Sen. Kurt Fevella, a Republican and Senate Minority Leader, suggested that Hawaiian Electric Company and other energy companies should absorb the additional cost of switching to renewable energy.
“The fact that Hawaiian families are already doing what it takes to reduce their energy use while paying the most in the country for home electricity is unsustainable,” Fevella said. “While I think utility companies like HECO can do more to reduce the energy burden passed on to Hawaii’s ratepayers, I also think developers of renewable energy projects should also bear more of the costs of transmission.”
Hawaiian Electric Company, the state’s only electricity distributor, said it could do little to change prices to consumers.
“We are a regulated monopoly,” said Vice President of Government and Community Relations and Corporate Communications Jim Kelly. “So we don’t set prices. We don’t make money on the fuels we use to generate electricity.
AES, the operator of Hawaii’s last coal plant, has shifted to creating clean energy and is working on large solar farms across the state, including one in West Oahu that will replace some of the power of coal lost when it is completed next year.
“Renewables are getting cheaper and cheaper,” said Leonardo Moreno, president of AES Corporation’s clean energy division. “I envision a future where energy is very, very cheap, abundant and renewable.”
Sustainable energy experts say getting rid of coal is key to curbing climate change. While the current renewable energy landscape isn’t perfect, they say the technologies are improving.
“This is the decade of climate action that we really need to move on right now,” said Makena Coffman, a professor at the University of Hawaii and director of the Institute for Sustainability and Resilience. “And so these are available technologies and they could gradually improve, but let’s not wait 10 years to do that.”
The benefits of higher electricity costs for Hawaiian consumers will go primarily to foreign oil producers, Hawaii Chief Energy Officer Scott Glenn said.
Hawaii’s oil is distributed by Par Pacific, a Houston-based company that traditionally sources state oil from Libya and Russia. But after Ukraine invaded, Hawaii halted oil shipments from Russia and replaced them with products from Argentina.
Extending the operation of the coal-fired plant would be complicated and expensive, Glenn said, noting that the plant had been planning its dismantling for years and would now have to buy coal at market price.
“Coal is rising. It’s getting more and more expensive,” he said of sourcing Hawaii from clear-cut rainforests in Indonesia. “If we used American coal, it wouldn’t be the cheapest power source on the grid.”
Why would Hawaii, a small US state in the middle of the Pacific, try to lead the way by switching to sustainable energy?
“We are already feeling the effects of climate change,” Glenn said. “It is neither fair nor just to ask other nations or states to act on our behalf if we are unwilling and unable to do so ourselves. If we don’t, we drown.
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