Pursuing Energy Independence on Molokaʻi


Hawaiʻi residents pay more for electricity than the rest of the country. And within Hawaiʻi, Molokaʻi and Lānaʻi residents pay the most.

Over the past decade, community groups have spearheaded various local initiatives to help Molokaʻi families and businesses take personal action to conserve energy and adopt renewables to combat the crushing electrical bills that consume 10-30% of their monthly incomes.

As a result, Molokaʻi residents have the lowest per capita electrical usage in Hawaiʻi. Approximately 14% of Molokaʻi homeowners (about 500) have installed roof-top solar panels. Some homes are off-grid and powered by generators, but most of the remainder get their electricity from the Hawaiian Electric Company (HECO).

Ironically, in the 1980s Molokaʻi’s electrical system was 100% renewable with a biomass power plant and a wind turbine. However, these early renewable technologies failed due to location and financial constraints. After HECO bought the utility in 1989, energy on Molokaʻi became 100% diesel power generated.

But today, led by two community-based groups, Molokaʻi residents are stepping up to plan for and build renewable energy on the island.

The Molokaʻi Clean Energy Hui (MCEH) was formed under the nonprofit Sus’tainable Molokaʻi in 2020. The hui is developing a portfolio of clean energy projects that are both feasible and respectful of Molokaʻi’s culture and environment to achieve 100% renewable energy for the island. Their inclusive planning process is receiving wide support because it is community-initiated, driven, and led. The second group, Hoʻāhu Energy Cooperative, was formed to produce community-owned, affordable, renewable energy projects.

In June 2021, these organizations joined forces to ask the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to envision Molokaʻi’s renewable energy future through the community’s eyes. After hearing an unprecedented number of testimonies from the community, the PUC made two key decisions.

First, they made critical improvements to the proposed Community-based Renewable Energy (CBRE) project that will provide 25% of Molokaʻi’s renewable energy. HECO agreed to not compete for the project and Hoʻāhu’s proposal to build a nonprofit solar project for Molokaʻi is awaiting approval.

In the interim, Hoʻāhu’s kuleana is to provide hands-on training to cultivate an on-island workforce from Molokaʻi that will be ready to help build this first-of-its-kind solar project as well as future projects, such as nanogrids (a power grid that services a single home or facility). To date, 14 Molokaʻi residents have graduated with solar certification.

The PUC’s second landmark decision was to temporarily defer a utility-driven project and planning process on Molokaʻi and, instead, to allow MCEH to develop an island-wide, community-led plan for Molokaʻi’s future renewable energy in partnership with experts from the Hawaiʻi Natural Energy Institute.

Called the Molokaʻi Community Energy Resilience Action Plan (CERAP), community-led planning launched in January 2022 and will take up to 18 months to complete. Residents are participating in meetings, providing input into the planning process, and learning about the available suitable technologies – to include costs, siting, and other challenges related to planning new renewable energy projects. Renewable energy scenarios are currently being developed and assessed with community input regarding the environment, as well as the cultural, economic, and cost impacts.

In addition, Molokaʻi CERAP is coordinating with Maui County resilience initiatives, including climate change and sea-level rise, transportation electrification, and disaster recovery. “The main priority is for residents to provide their manaʻo and get the word out to their friends and neighbors about the planning process through Facebook, texts and email, to encourage them to provide input at meetings,” said Leilani Chow, MCEH coordinator and Sust’ainable Molokaʻi energy program manager.

Years ago, HECO and others identified Molokaʻi as the island with the greatest potential to be 100% energy renewable by 2020. However, proposed large-scale renewable projects failed because an island with a small population, most of whom are low to medium income, is not financially “attractive” to developers. In addition, the absence of trusted experts and balanced information resulted in community opposition to large-scale projects.

The high cost of electricity affects every aspect of life on Molokaʻi. It results in higher costs for everything from food and water to communications and internet services, while Molokaʻi businesses are forced to either pass their costs along to consumers or discount their goods and services.

But the people of Molokaʻi are known for being self-sufficient and resilient, and residents are putting in the time and effort needed – through hard work, volunteering and attending frequent community meetings – to educate themselves about the various renewable energy options, costs and trade-offs.

Molokaʻi is determined to become a clean energy community and Molokaʻi CERAP is forging a new way to plan for Molokaʻi’s renewable and independent energy future. As Hawaiʻi’s 2045 mandate for 100% renewable energy looms on the horizon, Molokaʻi is making up for lost time and may end up leading the way as Hawaiʻi seeks ways to reduce its dependency on fossil fuels and convert existing systems to tap renewable energy sources.

Molokaʻi Models of Sustainability

Photo: OHA Trustees visit with Kunani and Ipolani Nihipali on Molokaʻi
On Molokaʻi, the OHA Trustees visited with Kunani and Ipolani Nihipali at their Hoʻolehua homestead, a model for sustainable living. Their home is made from well-insulated shipping containers. Solar panels provide enough electricity for their entire home. The Nihipalis have planted a variety of crops including a niu nursery, ulu, fruit trees, etc. The Trustees also visited L & R Farm that grows the famous Molokaʻi purple sweet potato. Mahalo to our hosts on Molokaʻi for the warm hospitality, and sharing your lifestyles and models for economic self-sufficiency. Photo (L-R): Ipolani Nihipali, Molokaʻi Trustee Luana Alapa, Chair Hulu Lindsey, Kauaʻi Trustee Dan Ahuna, Oʻahu Trustee Kalei Akaka, At-Large Trustee Brendon Kaleiʻāina Lee, Walter Rawlins of the Molokaʻi Aha Moku and Kūnani Nihipali enjoy the shade of a kukui nut tree on the Nihipali homestead. – Photo: Alice Silbanuz