By Nina Wu
It was a year of highs, and a year of lows for the environment. There were several milestones, and there remain many unknowns for the upcoming year of 2015. Below is a summary of the markers for the year 2014, as I saw it.
1. Plastic overload. The year 2014 was the year of plastic, as has been the case in previous years. This year, the alarm is at an all-time high. A new study published in December by the scientific journal, PLOS ONE, reported that an estimated 270,000 tons of plastic (enough to fill more than 38,500 garbage trucks) is floating in the world's ocean, and that's only the plastic that's on the surface, not the ocean floor. Not only that, but the plastic breaks down into more than 5 trillion pieces. The impacts of all this plastic in our oceans as well as the food chain (including the fish and seafood we eat) are still unknown. Read the AP story posted Dec. 13, 2014 at staradvertiser.com.
2. Plastic-bag free. Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell signed Bill 38 in September, officially banning retailers from distributing plastic carryout bags, including biodegradable bags. But the law doesn't go into effect until July 1, 2015. With that in place, Oahu joins Maui, Kauai and the Big Island in banning plastic bags at checkout. Apparently, the reaction among our readers was to start hoarding plastic bags (49 percent of our readers, based on our Big Q poll). In September, California was the first to implement a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags at grocery and convenience stores.
3. Monk seal hospital. Ke Kai Ola, the new Hawaiian monk seal hospital in Kona, held its grand opening and blessing on Sept. 2. The Marine Mammal Center's $3.2 million facility is dedicated to giving sick and injured Hawaiian monk seals a second chance. Four young, malnourished monk seals, Kulia, Ikaika, Hala‘i and Maka‘ala, were admitted on July 9 after being rescued from the northwestern Hawaiian islands.
4. Monk seal death. This year also marked a sad occurrence, with the suspicious death of a monk seal pup on the north shore of Kauai in November. Monk seal pup RF58 died from apparent blunt force trauma to the head. She was only about 4 to 5 months old, the daughter of Rocky, or RH58. An initial reward offer of $5,000 doubled to $10,000. In an unprecedented move, The Garden Island newspaper also decided to offer a $10,000 reward.
5. Expanded protection. President Barack Obama in September, through presidential proclamation, extended the protection zone around the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument by about 50 nautical miles. It was heralded as a victory by many conservation organizations in Hawaii who testified in favor of it.
6. HECO roller coaster. The Hawaii Electric Cos., the utility for the islands of Oahu, Maui and the Big Island, touched a major public nerve when its Aug. 26 plan was received by the Public Utilties Commission, proposing that the basic connection fees for customers in Honolulu be raised to a minimum of $55. On top of that, HECO attempted to drive a wedge between solar and non-solar customers, blamed its aging grid problems on solar PV customers and asked that new solar customers pay additional fees to connect. This came at a time when more than 3,500 solar PV customers were still waiting, from 9 months to a year, to get connected. Even DBEDT criticized the utility for putting its own profits above public interest while continuing to adhere to an outdated business model. Then in December HEI announced Florida-based NextEra would acquire the company for $4.3 billion, pending approval by the PUC. It's unknown how NextEra will treat individual solar PV customers. Let's just hope that battery storage systems become more affordable in coming years so that customers who want to get solar PV can do so, without worrying about the utility's grid.
7. Solar. It was not a good year for the solar industry in Hawaii. As reported in the Star-Advertiser business section, roof solar permits issued in Honolulu fell by 50 percent. Only 520 permits were issued by the city last month compared to 1,040 in November 2013 despite the availability of both state and federal tax credits (the federal tax credit is set to expire Dec. 31, 2016). Looking at the overall picture, though, the Hawaii State Energy Office noted that distributed renewable energy system installations increased significantly from 12,560 in 2012 to 18,316 in 2013. At the end of the year, the cumulative number of systems statewide totaled 40,717 with a total capacity of 253.5 Megawatt (MW). The state also ranked first in energy performance contracting in the nation with an investment of $235.74 per capita, and earned a third, consecutive Race to the Top award from the Energy Services Coalition in 2014.
8. Bronze for bikes. Honolulu earned its first bronze as a bicycle-friendly city from the League of American Bicyclists. Honolulu is the first municipality in Hawaii to achieve the bronze. Bicycle activists say Honolulu made strides in five areas, including engineering, education, encouragement, enforcement and evaluation. They also laud the new King St. Cycle Track as a big step forward.
9. Invasive species. From downed albizia trees on the Big Island to little fire ants and coconut rhinoceros beetles, the year 2014 was a year to monitor potentially destructive invasive species. The state department of agriculture does the best that it can on a meager budget. The albizia trees got plenty of attention during tropical storm Iselle, when they fell like a row of matchsticks and downed power lines. The little fire ants made their way to Mililani Mauka. The latest coconut rhino beetle, previously discovered around Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, was found in a trap at Kakaako Waterfront Park. Add to the list, a coconut crab in Salt Lake, and an emu on the Big Island.
10. Electric Vehicles. The number of people driving electric vehicles in Hawaii continues to grow. As of October 2014, DBEDT estimated the number of passenger electric vehicles in the state was 3,026, up 54.5 percent, from 1,068 from the same month a year ago. More charging stations are also popping up around the isles. Volta just announced two free charging stations outside of Whole Foods Market in Kahului, Maui.