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Examining the energy future of Hawaii and the world

Adelie penguin (COPYRIGHT JOHN WELLER)
Adelie penguin (COPYRIGHT JOHN WELLER)
Team 2 from the Energy Excelerator. (PHOTO COURTESY OF THE WOFF)
Team 2 from the Energy Excelerator. (PHOTO COURTESY OF THE WOFF)
St. George City from Hot Water (PHOTO COURTESY OF THE WOFF)
St. George City from Hot Water (PHOTO COURTESY OF THE WOFF)

Most of us try to use less electricity for the practical reason of reducing our monthly electric bill, but the true costs of generating our energy here in Hawaii may be borne by everyday people on the other side of the planet.

Films being screened at the 2014 Waimea Ocean Film Festival highlight the detrimental effects of fossil fuels and nuclear energy on the health of the environment and on people, especially in rural areas of North America where these natural resources are being extracted.

“The coal companies are stealing land, water and air that we thought was ours,” said one fourth-generation farmer being interviewed in Bill Haney’s film called “The Last Mountain,” about mountaintop coal removal in West Virginia.

This process of extracting coal entails blasting the top off of a mountain, literally removing up to 800 feet of the summit, to access coal seams underground. The result to the surrounding rural communities? Poisoned wells, polluted streams, and flooding, all resulting from the destruction of the watershed.

A similar story of environmental woe was told in “Hot Water,” a film by Lizabeth Rogers about the impacts of uranium mining on rural communities. Sometimes touted as a “clean energy” because it doesn’t generate carbon dioxide, nuclear energy depends on uranium mined throughout the western United States and abroad for its fuel. Both active and abandoned uranium mines leak radiation and toxins into soil, water, and air, causing cancer and early death to thousands of innocent people who happen to live near the mines.

When Rogers asked about the health of the miners themselves, a local resident candidly replied on film, “They don’t have health problems because they’re all dead.”

Fortunately, amidst all the gloom and doom of the majority of the environment-focused films at the festival, one little spark of hope in the form of a five-minute film called “Energy Excelerator” provided a positive spin on the future of energy on Hawaii Island.

Although Hawaii Island is way ahead of most of the world in our use of renewable energy — currently 50 percent of the electricity generated on the island comes from solar, wind, and hydroelectric sources — we still rely on oil and natural gas as the backbone of our power grid, said Dawn Lippert, senior manager with the Energy Excelerator, a Honolulu-based program to direct investment to innovative entrepreneurs who are poised to solve energy problems in Hawaii and the world.

Lippert spoke at a breakfast talk at the Mauna Kea Garden Room as part of the film festival, and shared with listeners the hope that springs from creative minds ready to solve Hawaii’s energy problems.

The key challenge to integrating renewable energy sources like solar and wind into the public utility grid on Hawaii Island is the need to immediately respond to energy demand, said Lippert. Solar energy is obviously only available during daylight, and both wind and solar depend on the variability of local weather. Demand for energy is more predictable, and that baseline, 24-hours-a-day need for electricity has driven many of the innovations being supported by the Energy Excelerator, included new battery designs and building-scale systems that can regulate their own energy needs, she said.

To learn more about the projects being funded by the Energy Excelerator, visit their website at www.energyexcelerator.com.