Energy Transition in Paradise: Hawaiian case study on how to approach wide-scale renewable energy transitions

Taedong, L., M. B. Glick, J. Lee. 2020. Island energy transition: Assessing Hawaii’s multi-level, policy-driven approach. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 118.

What’s going on in Hawaii?

Currently, Hawaii has the highest dependence on oil of any state in the United States, relying on oil for nearly 90% of its primary energy. This dependence is felt by citizens paying their electricity bills, as the cost of electricity in the state is twice as high as the national average. Unfortunately, these island energy statistics are not unique to Hawaii and are a common situation for many islands around the world.

However! Hawaii has ample access to renewable energy resources, such as solar, wind, geothermal, and ocean energy. Hawaii is well on its way to implementing an impressive energy transition project that could bring its renewable portfolio standard (the amount of energy produced from renewable sources, like wind and solar[i]) to fuel all of the islands as early as 2040! Amazingly, Hawaii was the first state in the U.S. to establish a 100% renewable energy goal, when it did so back in 2015.

Figure 2. Wind turbines, an example of a source of renewable energy. Source:

Renewable energy transition is a wide and varied field of research and while a lot of material has been published in the field, there has been little focus islands. Dr. Taedong Lee and his colleagues decided to fill this knowledge gap by conducting a multi-level perspective approach to study the effects of an energy transition in Hawaii, covering everything from the global energy arena to the local energy consumer.

Studying renewable energy transitions anywhere in the world means understanding the influences of the global and federal energy trends and the local socioeconomic and physical factors that are affected by energy. Lee and his colleagues defined an energy transition as “a sustainability transition that transforms an existing energy system towards a resilient and self-sufficient one” (Taedong et al. 2020). In this paper, the authors analyzed what a Hawaiian renewable energy transition has looked like as it has progressed over the past 15 years.

What does a successful energy transition look like?

For a successful island energy transition, the authors offered a check-list of requirements:

  1. Renewable energy resources – ideally, locally-produced and low cost (think solar or wind in Hawaii)
  2. A diverse mix of energy – this ensures resiliency, so if one source of energy fails, the whole archipelago won’t go dark
  3. Modern energy grid and storage infrastructure – this means that the energy system in the locality needs to be equipped to handle new energy technologies and store excess energy for later use
  4. Strong and supportive governance – meaning that the government has to be on board with sustainable energy solutions and needs to help with oversight and enforcement

In Hawaii, they have hit the jackpot in eligibility for a successful and sustainable energy transition. They have a wide variety of renewable energy resources, utility companies that are willing to improve their infrastructure to handle new greener energy technologies, and a government that is onboard with the shift to renewable energy.

In addition, the authors stressed the importance of “socio-technical innovation” in any energy transition project (Taedong et al. 2020). By this, the authors stated that a sustainable energy transition project means not only having the technological development needed but also the willingness of the society to embrace these energy technologies as a new norm.

Figure 3. A field of solar panels turning the sunlight into usable energy. Source:
Has Hawaii been successful?

Hawaii has taken considerable strides in achieving its energy transition goals from the onset of their energy transition project back in 2009. Across the Hawaiian Islands, there are utility-scale wind energy projects and geothermal and hydro-power production plants that are starting to take shape. Solar power has been successful in Hawaii, with benefits to customers like money off their monthly bill and tax incentives for the state. Lastly, Hawaii has been an active player in the world of electric vehicles (EVs), offering customers incentives for purchasing a new EV!

Overall, the authors concluded that the Hawaiian renewable energy transition has been a success. The authors stressed the importance of studying energy transition from a multiple-perspective approach and how understanding the perspectives of all the stakeholders involved in energy transition can help achieve great success. The authors hoped this analysis could inform the energy policy literature about island energy transition projects and help other islands become renewable over time.



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Jessica Wright

I am a fourth year PhD. student in earth sciences at Boston University in the Department of Earth and Environment. My research focuses on urban infrastructure systems and energy transition policy, specifically focusing on the role of natural gas. I completed my undergraduate studies at Connecticut College in Biology and have worked with a lot of non-profits in and around the Greater Boston area on energy transition policy-making. I love to swim, do yoga, and travel!

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