Guest Column — A Call For Cheaper Electricity

By Richard Ha

Here is the single most important need facing Hawai‘i today. Everything else radiates from it:

We need cheaper electricity.

It can be done. Recently the Big Island Community Coalition, along with others, helped stop some fairly significant electricity rate hikes from showing up on everybody’s HELCO bills.

And we are very lucky to have resources here, such as geothermal energy, that we can use to generate much cheaper electricity.

Here’s why this is so important:

• We need enough food to eat, and we need to grow it here, instead of relying on it coming to us from somewhere else.

Food security – having enough food to eat, right here where we live – is truly the bottom line. We live in the middle of an ocean, we import more than 80 percent of what we eat, and sometimes there are natural or other disasters and shipping disruptions. This makes a lot of us a little nervous.

• To grow our food here, we need for our farmers to make a decent living: “If the farmers make money, the farmers will farm.”

The price of oil, and of petroleum byproducts like fertilizers and many other farming products, keeps going up, which raises farmers’ costs. They cannot pass on all these higher costs, and they lose money.

We use oil for 70 percent of our electricity here in Hawai‘i, whereas on the mainland they use oil for only 2 percent of theirs—so when the cost of oil increases, anything here that requires electricity to produce is less competitive. And farmers in Hawai‘i also pay four times as much for electricity as do their mainland competition, which puts them at an even bigger competitive disadvantage. Fewer young people are going into farming and this will impact our food security even further.

HELCO needs to be a major driver in reducing the cost of electricity. We believe that HELCO is fully capable of providing us with reliable and less costly electrical power, and ask that the PUC reviews its directives to and agreements with HELCO. Its directives should now be that HELCO’s primary objective should be making significant reductions in the real cost of reliable electric power to Hawai‘i Island residents.

At the same time, we ask that HELCO be given the power to break out of its current planning mode in order to find the most practicable means of achieving this end. We will support a long-range plan that realistically drives down our prices to ensure the viability of our local businesses and the survivability of our families. All considerations should be on the table, including power sources (i.e., oil, natural gas, geothermal, solar, biomass, etc.), changes in transmission policy including standby charges, and retaining currently operating power plants.

This is not “us” vs. “them.” We are all responsible for creating the political will to get it done.

Rising electricity costs act like a giant regressive tax: the people on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder get hurt first, and hardest. If our energy costs are lower – and we can absolutely make that happen – our farmers can keep their prices down, food will be cheaper, and consumers will have more money left over at the end of the month. This is good for our people, and for our economy.

We have good resources here and we need to maximize them. Geothermal and other options for cheaper for energy. We also have the University of Hawai‘i, the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, the Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center and others that help our farmers.

To learn more about achieving cheaper electricity rates, consider joining the Big Island Community Coalition (; there’s no cost). We send out an occasional email with information on what we’re doing to get electricity costs down, and how people can help.

Remember the bottom line: every one of us needs to call for cheaper electricity, and this will directly and positively impact our food security.

Richard Ha is a farmer on the Big Island’s Hamakua coast, a member of the state’s Board of Agriculture, and chairman of the Big Island Community Coalition.


40 replies
  1. James Weatherford
    James Weatherford says:

    Nobel Economist Joseph Stiglitz, speaking in March 2012 @ UH-Manoa, identified electricity costs as a major constraint for our state’s economy.
    His solutions differ from Mr Ha. In particular, he identifies multiple generators as being needed in the form of rooftop solar. He also points out that HELCO is the major part of the problem, where Mr Ha likes HELCO’s monopoly and concentrated control of electricity generation.
    Dr Stiglitz explicitly pointed out that Hawaii’s electricity grid monopoly stifles alternatives, and that we need to have a large fraction of electricity supplied by many small producers.
    Dr. Stiglitiz’s lecture begins at the 21:30 mark of this video; with Hawaii’s economy discussed around 50 minute mark —

  2. NeighborWatch
    NeighborWatch says:

    Well if you can’t exploit the islands resources one way try another? HA HA HA……..NO
    Why not tap the ocean’s energy? It’s not toxic, yet.

  3. punated
    punated says:

    The high cost of Hawaii electricity on Hawaii island is due to two things: 1)over 50% is still coming from oil burning plants with the rate relational to the price of a barrel of oil, which has quadrupled in the past 15 years and 2) the Power Purchase Agreements (PPA) on 20 year energy contracts were made under Avoided Cost Contracting (ACC) allowing the existing wind and solar to be charged at the same rate as if from burning oil. ACC was mandated by Gov. Lingle and the state legislature in 2008. The requirement for PPA under ACC was removed in 2011 but those PPA made before that have ACC grand-fathered in.

    Really, grow up and stop trying to find demons in every corner, crack and crevice.

  4. Kelly
    Kelly says:

    Richard Ha’s assertion;
    “If the farmers make money, the farmers will farm” shows an essential flaw in our economic system, capitalism.
    Our economic system is pathological;
    it can’t/doesn’t value clean air, it can’t/doesn’t value clean water,
    and it doesn’t value clean (chemical free) food.
    We need to grow healthy food grown in a sustainable way, and there is a huge food movement to do that. Here.
    The dominating economic system will never promote that.
    We need a food system that sidesteps capitalism, otherwise Monsanto will control more and more of our chemical based food production.
    Richard Ha’s ‘industrialist’ view of food production can’t get us to healthy-food sovereignty.
    Chemical technicians are not sustainable farmers, sorry.

  5. Kelly
    Kelly says:

    Even Russell Ruderman will have to face the reality,
    we can’t ‘buy’ our way to sustainability with organic food sales.
    I love Russell, my favorite organic capitalist, but clean local food production for the sake of ‘food’ is what is working for grasroots communities everywhere.

  6. Kit
    Kit says:

    But, but…who’s going to help poor HELCO? Are you so heartless that you would leave them blowing in the wind? How do you expect them to pay for nuclear R&D by themselves?

  7. Richard Ha
    Richard Ha says:

    Mahalo James, for. Posting Dr Stiglitz talk. Thats the level of discussion we need to be having. He concludes by saying the solutions must be environmentally, socially and economically sustainable. I agree with him. I wrote above that low cost electricity is the most important thing that we can strive for. He points out what we all know, that petroleum resources are finite and therefore unsustainable–and will be increasingly more expensive. We do have geothermal, solar and wind available to us. Low cost electricity can address our liquid fuel transportation problem– electric vehicles as well as hydrogen fuel cell. Low cost electricity can be passed through water to get hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen can be used to fuel hydrogen fuel cells. If we combine the hydrogen with nitrogen from the air we can get ammonia which is a nitrogen fertilizer. Median family incomes have been declining for many years. The people and businesses who can pass costs on will do so. The Big Island has the lowest median family income in the state. High electricity rates act like a giant regressive tax, the folks who get hurt first and hardest are the folks on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder. But, we can reverse that with low electricity rates. And since two thirds of the economy is made up of consumer spending, a policy that drives electricity costs down will give the rubbah slippah folks spending money. We get trickle up instead if trickle down economics. Trickle down economics is not sustainable as Dr Stiglitz points out. It is clear to me that the professor did not know we had geothermal as a low cost, stable and environmentally friendly resource that would make future generations more competitive to the rest of the world. Other than that, I abso,uteky agree with thevprofessor. I went to Iceland and saw that in actual appication. It works and its not rocket science

  8. Richard Ha
    Richard Ha says:

    Aloha Kelly

    I think you misinterpret my observation that;
    Food security involves farmers farming and if the farmers make money, the farmers will farm. My observation has more to do with a simple statement that ones pluses must exceed ones minuses or one needs to go do something else. So, this involves using math to keep track of the pluses and minuses. It’s a huge leap from doing math to keep track of the pluses and minuses to; therefore you are an advocate of industrial agriculture. I think we are more in line with your vision of sustainability than not.

  9. NeighborWatch
    NeighborWatch says:

    BULLSHIT, “COST!!! of electricity”

    Energy should and COULD be free, but as long as there are those who desire to profit off the regulation of others we will PAY, to stay on the planet.
    If energy were free for everyone how expensive would food be? How good would life be for everyone?

    But Nooooo, not when there is so much profit to be made.
    After all it’s my copper wire.
    $200,000,000,000,000.00 is why.
    The answers were discovered and censured by the greedy rich, it’s not a secret, not a conspiracy (unless you count the ‘agreements’) and it’s not nuclear science.
    Tesla discovered it, the gov. covered it, and will use it against us not for us. Suppression of information for the profit of the few.

  10. Hugh Clark
    Hugh Clark says:

    Me thinks we have come a long way from 1970s but not as fast as we might have because of reluctance to embrace solar, wind and geothermal. The fear of the unknown and assumed aesthetics are our downfall.

  11. James Weatherford
    James Weatherford says:

    As usual in this conversation there is (near?) unanimous agreement that petroleum is our problem — it is a finite resource approaching depletion, we use a lot of it, it comes from somewhere else, is very expensive and can only get more expensive, and is really nasty stuff how ever you burn it.
    Good, some common ground. We sure as hell need it.

    The important part of Dr Stigliz’s message was:
    Hawaii’s electricity grid monopoly stifles alternatives, and that we need to have a large fraction of electricity supplied by many small producers.

    And, btw, Richard, it is probably not a good assumption that Dr Stiglitz did not know about geothermal in Hawaii.

  12. sada anand kaur
    sada anand kaur says:

    Community-owned utilities, keeping any profits for local community benefit.
    We can no longer afford to pay Helco CEO $100,000.00/month. That era of corporate waste is fast ending, we have an opportunity & responsibility
    to move forward as a island community.
    All utility rate payers are shareholders in our future, residential & business utility consumers best unite in this common benefit to all.
    Solar, off-shore wind & wave power technologies have out-dated fossil fuel based utilities.
    Sonoma & Marin counties have moved on to community-owned utilities and so can we.

  13. James Weatherford
    James Weatherford says:

    Richard, the way I read Kelly’s comments are that we are ignoring/discounting important “pluses” and “minuses” — omitting critical variables from our calculation. Clean air. Clean water. Health.

    Farmers (and pretty much all business enterprises) have nil incentive to protect and regenerate natural resources; only to exploit. For the individual farmer, there is nil incentive to produce food that ensures the good health of the people who live next the field the food is produced in and the people who consume the food. You are right, there is only incentive to make money.

    Farmers I know now — and that I have known across the years in the USA and in Australia — who concern themselves with the good health of their workers, their community, and the people who consume the food they produce, do so because of personal pride and conscience. And they stay in business anyway.

  14. Richard Ha
    Richard Ha says:

    Howzit James
    You say that the important part of Dr Stiglitz speech was that Hawaii’s electric grid monopoly stifles alternatives and that we need to have a large fraction of electricity provided by many small producers. What exactly does that mean? I absolutely respect Dr Stiglitz expertise in the big picture. But, we don’t give ourselves enough credit for being able to figure out solutions to our specific problems. Geothermal meets all three of Dr Stiglitz sustainability requirements. Why woukd he not mention it. I think it is for the reason that many national caliber thinkers don’t mention geothermal. It’s not top of mind in the national discourse. So, we must be careful of using mainland solutions for island problems.

  15. NeighborWatch
    NeighborWatch says:

    Ha Ha maybe because Geothermal is TOXIC and NOT sustainable. What happens when the well, quits and flows somewhere else? Chase the flow? Drill baby drill?
    Mainland solution. You want to push those monopolies eh?
    Independent energy/power generation, free, is the future.

  16. Richard Ha
    Richard Ha says:

    Aloha James
    Your assumption that I like HELCO’s monopoly is not correct. It’s like playing chess. You are not playing your opponent, you are playing the position on the chess board in front of you. And, its not the position you wish you had. The objective is to win the game. Geothermal is the move that can win the game. It is socially sustainable, environmentally sustainable and economically sustainable.

  17. Tiffany Edwards Hunt
    Tiffany Edwards Hunt says:

    Hi Tiff

    This one to Hugh did not get posted too. Can you help me? I’m in Kona driving back soon.


    Sent from my iPad

    Begin forwarded message:

    From: Richard Ha
    Date: April 13, 2014, 7:09:22 AM HST
    To: Big Island Chronicle
    Subject: Re: [Big Island Chronicle] New Comment On: Guest Column — A Call For Cheaper Electricity

    Aloha Hugh
    Iceland started their transition during the 1970’s. Now. 97% plus of their electricity is made from geothermal and hydro. They also use geothermal heat to warm up their homes and businesses. These geothermal heat wells are located in and around the city of Reykjavik. The export their cheap electricity by bringing up Bauxite from Australia and convert it to Aluminum and sell it to the rest of the world. .When I was there in 2011, they already had a hydrogen refueling station, all they needed was the hydrogen fuel cell cars. It’s now coming. So, they could become 100% free of petroleum if they wanted. The difference between them and us? They look for the one reason why CAN! We look for the thousand reasons why, NO CAN.

    Sent from my iPad

  18. Greg
    Greg says:

    Geothermal, tied to HELCO’s energy monopoly has lowered our cost per Kilowatt hour from about .14 cents twenty years ago to over .40 cents today; among the highest in the nation.

    How does more Geothermal, or any alternative source, help, as long as it’s tied to HELCO’s state of the art 19th century distribution and monopolization system?

  19. punated
    punated says:

    I really wish people would just look at their HELCO bill rationally and see the rate breakdown.

    HELCO is already splitting the rates between electricity derived from burning oil and rates for the alternative energy Power Purchase Agreements (PPA) after 2008.

    If you take the part that is from burning oil or that under ACC, having a rate the same as burning oil, and do the arithmetic, that rate is more than 60 cents per kilowatt-hour. The alternative energy PPA after 2008 and hydroelectric are around 30 cents per kilowatt-hour. Since the percentage from oil burning rates is higher, the average is about 37 cents per kilowatt-hour. The base rate ends up being 42 cents per kilowatt-hour.

    If more PPA can be made with no ACC, then the rates will start going down. This is happening gradually, although not as smoothly or as rapid as it needs to be. Considering the factors today, rates could be lowered by a new PPA with PGV to go to 60 MW. This would allow the Hilo oil burning electric plant to go to idle. The real factor here is the Ho Honua plant going online soon, the eucalyptus biomass electric rate will be about 25 cents per kilowatt-hour while adding more than 20MW. With these two power source increases, the power consumption of the east side will be exceeded. Additional wind and solar farms coming online will allow the Hilo plant to be phased out. This is going to happen gradually, over the next few years. The less oil that is burned means the less oil that has to be imported with dollars leaving the island in exchange.

  20. Ronald
    Ronald says:

    James, I am confused. As as an agricultural economist surely you see that neither socialism nor it’s cousin Marxism produces a sustainable model. When you appear to rail against farmers seeking profits you seem to also rail against capitalism. Or are you simply stating that a true capitalist recognizes the importance of satisfising (recognizing social as well as monetary good) rather than simply maximizing profits? Or is to another model that you propose?

  21. Richard Ha
    Richard Ha says:

    One of the main reason why the Big Island Community Coalition is against rising electricity rates is because it is not socially sustainable. There are more Hawaiians living outside Hawaii than in Hawaii. Rising electricity rates will increase that percentage. It is not a socially sustainable condition where more and more of the host culture leave their ancestral home.
    Of the counties, Hawaii county has the lowest median family income. At the Pahoa School Complex 89% of the students rely on the free/subsidized lunch program. This is the highest percent in the whole state. Rising electricity rates contribute to this socially unsustainable trend.

  22. James Weatherford
    James Weatherford says:

    Dr Stiglitz does his homework. That is why he is a Nobel Economist. He would have had in his hands a current and full breakdown of sources electricity generation and distribution in Hawaii.

    When he said the electric monopoly was the problem and more producers were needed, the point is that competition increases innovation, improves performance, and lowers prices.

    What can be done?
    One approach used to introduce competition into electricity markets is to separate generation and distribution control.

  23. sada anand kaur
    sada anand kaur says:

    Our post volcanic geology disallows geothermal fracking, pollution of our water table & reefs. Why is this so difficult to understand?
    We are living in a very old paradigm that no longer serves us or our future. Wake up!
    Again, community owned utilities would serve us all well.

  24. Richard Ha
    Richard Ha says:

    Neighborhood watch. Iceland is a very small country.But their banks acted like our biggest banks. They loaned money to everyone for the slightest of reasons–the least of them ability to pay. When, the system crashed, Iceland chose to prosecute their bankers and then worked at getting them selves out of the hole. The International Monetary Fund came in and gave them financing. They were an inch away from giving up their sovereignty, but they didn’t. This was considered the largest financial crash in modern history. Greece was getting in trouble at that time but no where near Iceland. Now, Iceland is growing at 3 to 4% GDP and have passed Greece in recovering. That’s what the US needs to do to eventually pull ourselves out of the great recession. We can hardly do 2% growth. Low cost electricity had a big hand to play in Icelands recovery. There is a lesson to learn in this. That is why the Big Island Community Coalition advocates for low cost electricity–starting with geothermal. Glad you pointed that out. That was one of the things I went to Iceland to observe.

  25. NeighborWatch
    NeighborWatch says:

    there was no fruitcake mentioned unless it’s the cellulose in YOUR fruit cake. Like this is a place for intelligent discourse. You got monopolies running the utilities/businesses, what’s new? Greedy people are more concerned with PROFITS than people’s health. Simple.

  26. Richard Ha
    Richard Ha says:

    Howzit Neighbor. Given the state of world population and finite resources, we need to do things we can actually accomplish. The Big Island Community Coalition was formed to advocate for the folks on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder. For those folks, its about how much money they have to sustain themselves. The BICC people feel that the people can make change by coming together around a call for lower cost electricity. With others we were able to stop a $19.2 million request for a rate hike. And we were able to stop the Aina Koa Pono bio fuel project in Ka’u. That project was going to make rate payers subsidize biofuels to the tune of $200 per barrel. The PUC chair Mina Morita was on the side of the people as we advocated for low cost electricity. Maybe you can help us make the changes necessary that will result in lower costs to the rate payers.

  27. tia
    tia says:

    We are farmers, and like our neighbor farmers, our bottom line is NOT profits. We grow organic, healthful foods for our families and community. As to the high cost of power, why doesn’t anyone promote reduce usage? Consume, consume, consume, then ask why there isn’t enough. Ha Ha Ha

  28. NeighborWatch
    NeighborWatch says:

    Well Ha I agree with that with the state of the planet we do need to use alternative sources of energy. If the cia would give up the stolen Tesla discoveries we wouldn’t be here wasting time blogging. Life would be better for everyone one on the planet, not just us on the island.
    But SOLAR is THE way for an island that gets SUN more than is necessary to energize the inhabitants. Solar on every house make better sense. Cut the cord to Helco and who will be their customer? There are some deep pocket trusts that could supply solar to every Native Islander household, if it was profitable.
    But doing business with Monsanto must be more so.
    There are smart choices, and there are smarter choices.
    What do you have against clean wind, solar, tidal?
    What’s your vested interest in geothermal?

  29. Richard Ha
    Richard Ha says:

    Aloha Neighbor. I am not paid by any geothermal entity. I am for geothermal as a general energy source. I am for geothermal because it is lowest cost and gives us a sustainable energy advantage to the rest of the world. Everybody has sun, lots have wind. Very few have geothermal. It is an indigenous resource that will help prevent the host people to leave their ancestral land to find jobs to raise their families.

  30. geothermoil
    geothermoil says:

    Please for the sake of honesty, please disclose your interests in geothermal production. Your dialogue is readable, but your reasoning is tweeked,. Not being paid is one thing, but being bought out is another. Ha means breath. Keep it fresh. Don’t let it get hot.

  31. NeighborWatch
    NeighborWatch says:

    And playing the indigenous card for THIS resources is disingenuous. So is the wind, the sun and the fact that we’re surrounded by water therefore tidal energy. The one you omitted for some reason.

    But no, the poisonous resource, is the one you choose.
    The one that will involve heavy industry and drilling.
    Goddess forbid fracking. It’s not cheaper than the sun.
    Bad choice.

  32. Richard Ha
    Richard Ha says:

    Aloha Geothermoil. I’ve been writing about Ag and Energy issues at my blog–
    It was clear to me at least 8 years ago that oil price would be rising and that geothermal would give the most value to the broadest number of people. T hat is my only agenda.

  33. Richard Ha
    Richard Ha says:

    Aloha Neighbor. Prof Stiglitz, Nobel economist above indicates that for renewable energy alternatives to be sustainable, it needs to be socially, environmentally and economically sustainable. What you refer to as the INDIGENOUS card addresses the socially sustainable category. None of the other renewables lowers the cost like geothermal does. This affects the folks on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder.
    Geothermal is done successfully and safely in Iceland and other places. When measuring quality of life, Iceland is always found on the high end of the worlds countries.

  34. Richard Ha
    Richard Ha says:

    Maybe we can all come together around one common denominator? A Big Island Energy cooperative. The members own the utility and the profits are distributed to the members. It is administered by a board that is elected by the members. Kauai Island Utility co op operates very well.

  35. Kelly
    Kelly says:

    Aloha Senor Ha –
    Already have an electric collective with neighbors.
    A micro grid solar photovoltaic system. No blackouts, even during high wind episodes and hurricanes. Everyone commits to minimal night time usage. It’s been working for over ten years.
    Since we are also neighbors of geothermal, and have been subjected to many threatening ‘incidences’ over the years, from blowouts to toxic unabated releases
    (like during Isell) we ask; tell us your ideas, but exclude geothermal from your equations.
    We have proved that geo is an unneccessary and costly risk.

  36. Richard Ha
    Richard Ha says:

    I am mostly focused on enabling the energy co op. It will be the board of directors who will decide policy.

    I went to Iceland. What was most striking to me was how much people there participated in their government. Their voter participation is in the high 80%. I think putting the energy future of the Big Island in peoples hands will be a good step in the right direction.

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