The Green Leaf

Year 2015 in review

December 15th, 2015


It's time again for the 2015 year in eco-review.

>> 1. Obama rejects Keystone XL Pipeline.

When President Barack Obama came to Hawaii for his annual holiday vacation last year, a handful of protestors showed up on the outer sidewalk corner of the cul-de-sac where he was staying on New Year's Eve. They didn't get much press attention.

Among them was Frostpaw, the polar bear, a mascot from the Center for Biological Diversity who donned an Aloha shirt and held a sign that said, "Stop Keystone XL." They had been following the president around Oahu during his vacation and apparently, as AP reported, even got the president to pause and say, "Hey, polar bear!" while playing a round of golf. The president had the power to veto the project altogether, but no one knew when he would make a definitive decision.

On Nov. 6, President Obama rejected TransCanda's application for a permit to complete the Keystone XL project.

"Today, the United States of America is leading on climate change," he said. "Ultimately, if we're going to prevent large parts of this Earth from becoming not only inhospitable but uninhabitable in our lifetimes, we're going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground rather than burn them and release more dangerous pollution into the sky."

>> 2Climate Change and Hurricanes.

In a 180-page report published in November, dozens of scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and across the world concluded there was a link between climate change and the substantial increase in active Hawaiian tropical cyclone seasons. We were lucky this season. We had an unprecedented number of hurricanes heading our way, even three simultaneously. We experienced high humidity, thunder, lightning and rain — but fortunately, averted any major disasters. Our recent Big Q poll found that most of readers think the issue of global warming is critical, and that we must take action now.

Perhaps we are finally waking up. On Saturday, Dec. 12, at the climate change conference, known as COP21, in Paris, nearly 200 countries unanimously agreed to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2-degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. For highlights, click here.

>> 3. A sweltering summer.

Hawaii set numerous record highs in temperatures this summer, due to El Nino and global warming which resulted in rising ocean temperatures. The sweltering summer resulted in a public school crisis for the Hawaii Department of Education, with students sweating in classrooms that reached between 90 to 100 degrees when school commenced July 29, during the height of summer. Parents complained, and the state responded by installing several hundred portable air-conditioners in classrooms, but that is a temporary solution, at best.

Campbell High School students took it upon themselves to launch a crowdfunding campaign, Fahrenheit73, to install a solar powered air conditioning unit.

Due to lack of state foresight, Hawaii's aging public school infrastructure not only does not have the electrical upgrades in place necessary for air-conditioning, but did not jump on the solar PV bandwagon fast enough. The Ka Hei initiative, launched last year, is attempting to reduce its electricity costs by installing more solar PV and implementing other conservation measures while incorporating STEM lessons into the curriculum.

>> 4. Plastic bag ban for Oahu.

The plastic bag ban for the island of Oahu finally went into effect on July 1, three years after the Hawaii legislature passed the measure. Oahu was the caboose behind neighbor isles, including Maui, Kauai and Hawaii counties, which already had a ban in place. But it's kind of a lame ban, in that it still allows retailers to offer a thicker plastic bag. Vendors who sell prepared foods are not covered by the ban.

>> 5. Sun sets on Hawaii's solar industry.

Sadly, the outlook for the solar industry in Hawaii has dimmed considerably. The future for solar in Hawaii is bleak.

The sun set on solar options for most homeowners when the state Public Utilities Commission announced it would cap new residential and commercial solar projects at 25 megawatts, or about 4,500 new systems, on Oahu. That cap will probable be reached within the first few months of the new year. That translates into a standstill for most of the industry, and layoffs.

Prior to that, the PUC also ended the net energy metering system, which allows homeowners to sell back the energy they produce, but don't use. Although solar is often portrayed as a luxury, Hawaii's middle-class homeowners who saved their hard-earned money or sacrificed other expenses to install solar PV will suffer the most. Only Hawaii's wealthy will be able to afford the  battery storage systems to go off the grid, though those prices will eventually come down.

All this is based on HECO's claim that the grid is at full capacity (which many of our readers doubt is sincerely the case), and due to HECO's own failure to prepare the grid for solar demand over the past decade. Hawaii, despite its claims of having the most solar installed per capita, is not at all a leader in sustainability. On the contrary, it looks as if we're a backwards state sliding even further backwards.

>> 6. Looming NextEra deal.

We love NextEra, we love NextEra not.

The future of Hawaii's electric utility remains up in the air as we wait to see whether the Public Utilities Commission decides to approve Florida-based NextEra Energy's $4.3 billion acquisition of the Hawaiian Electric Cos. Hawaii Gov. David Ige, the state consumer advocate,  DBEDT, Maui County Council, Sierra Club Hawaii, the Alliance for Solar Choice, Life of the Land and numerous other parties have all publicly opposed the deal as currently proposed.

Fair Energy for Hawaii, an initiative paid for by the Ulupono Initiative (an intervenor in the Nextera/HECO merger), says in its current state, the "scales of this deal are vastly tipped in favor of Hawaiian Electric shareholders, not consumers." Furthermore, NextEra has not made any actual guarantees of lowering energy costs for the people of Hawaii. Meanwhile, the state has committed to achieving 100 percent renewable energy by 2045.

Most recently, HECO CEO Alan Oshima admitted during a hearing on the pending sale that NextEra's claim it will save customers $60 million only translates to $1 per month per customer.

>> 7. King St. Bike Track.

Love it or hate it, the two-mile King Street Bike Track is now part of the King Street experience. The protected bike lane on the left-hand side of King Street officially opened in Dec. 2014 as part of a pilot project. Bicyclist commuters are using the track. Some drivers are griping about it. As both a biker and driver, I don't think it may have been the best choice of a street for the protected bike lane. But I don't have a problem driving down King Street (when making a left turn, make sure you look over your blind spot to the left to see if bikers are coming). I envy folks who live close enough to commute by bike. I think the parking spaces alongside the bike track should go – it's bizarre to have them on the left side of the road.

>> 8. Hope and peril for monk seal pups.

‘Ama‘ama and Puka at Ke Kai Ola. NOAA Permit 18786,

Ama‘ama and Puka at Ke Kai Ola. NOAA Permit 18786,

The good news is that the Hawaiian monk seal pup population in the Northwestern Hawaiian islands went up this year, according to data from NOAA's Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Team. There were 148 pups born in Papahanaumokuakea this year, 22 percent more than in 2014. Ke Kai Ola, the new monk seal hospital in Kona, also took in a few pups this year, which were successfully returned to their homes in the Northwestern Hawaiian islands after gaining weight.

At the same time, a growing issue of concern for Hawaii's critically endangered monk seals — toxoplasmosis — emerged towards the end of the year. In November, RN36, a two-year-old female monk seal died as a result of toxoplasmosis, which come from infected cats. Stray cats shed the eggs for toxoplasmosis into the environment, including the watersheds that lead to the ocean. At least eight seal deaths since 2001 are attributed to toxoplasmosis.

Currently, Ke Kai Ola is home to seven monk seal patients — Mahina, Mo‘o, ‘ena‘ena, Neva, Puka, Ama‘ama and Kilo. Six were rescued from Papahanaumokuakea. Kilo was rescued from Niihau.

>> 9. Turtle Bay conservation deal.

The state of Hawaii reached an agreement on the future of Turtle Bay conservation lands in October of this year. It goes down in the books as part of land conservation history. Four miles of coastline and eight miles of trails will be protected in perpetuity, while 665 acres from Kawela Bay to Kahuku Point are to be conserved with a total of $45 million shared by the state, the city and the U.S. Army in partnership with Trust for Public Land. Turtle Bay Resort, meanwhile, will limit its development plan to 725 resort units, including two small hotels and up to 100 resort residential homes.

>> 10. IUCN World Conservation Congress.

It's coming. Following on the heels of COP21, or United National Conference on Climate Change in Paris in early December, Hawaii is set to become the first U.S. site to host the IUCN World Conservation Congress Sept. 1 to 10 at Hawai‘i Convention Center. Held only once every four years, the Congress is expected to bring up to 10,000 attendees from around the globe, including high-profile attendees such as Prince William and possibly, President Barack Obama. The theme is "planet at the crossroads."

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