Building Resilience in Hawai‘i Before the Next Crisis

May 20, 2020

By Steve PetranikRead the full article in Hawaii Business Magazine here.

A Q&A with Henk Rogers

The City & County of Honolulu last year released Ola: Oahu Resilience Strategy, a roadmap to building resilience from climate events, the rising cost of living, and other economic challenges.This year, the state’s resilience was tested when the coronavirus pandemic choked the local economy and highlighted Hawai‘i’s vulnerabilities as an island community that imports most of its food and energy. Henk Rogers, founder of Blue Planet Energy, discusses the importance of building resilience and how Hawai‘i can develop a more sustainable and self-reliant energy system.

What does building resilience mean in this context?

Any time a community faces a widespread crisis or disaster, its ability to bounce back depends on how well it has prepared and what structures and systems it has to restore critical needs like electricity, shelter, and water. Island communities are particularly vulnerable to the threat of natural disasters and other outside forces, meaning it’s even more important for us to build resilience before something happens.In 2017, Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, leaving 95% of its residents without power or mobile phone service, and more than half the population without clean drinking water. The island’s aging power grid was destroyed and three months later, 45% of the people still didn’t have electricity.Blue Planet Energy has been working with government agencies and the American Red Cross in Puerto Rico to ensure power continuity for critical services like shelters, food, and water, particularly in times of crisis and grid outages. We deployed battery systems that store energy generated by solar panels at more than 100 schools, which are emergency shelters during natural disasters. That technology reduces reliance on the grid when another major disaster strikes. These systems will provide electricity and connectivity while the utility works to restore power elsewhere. That’s an example of resilience.

Why is it important for communities to build resilience?

The coronavirus pandemic demonstrated how important it is to build resilience and highlighted some of the weaknesses in island economies.For example, we import 90% of our food and 70% of our energy in the form of crude oil and coal. If those ships stopped coming, could we generate our own energy to power homes and businesses? Could we produce enough food to feed all our residents? Right now, the answer is no. That makes us vulnerable.Time and again, we’ve seen the need for greater resilience in Hawai‘i when dealing with natural disasters — lava flows, hurricanes, flooding. Extreme weather events will only increase as we continue to see the local effects of global climate change, so we need to prepare. By creating systems or using technologies that reduce our reliance on external forces, or quickly adapt to a changing environment, we become more resilient as a state.

How can Hawai‘i build resilience?

I predict critical services and essential businesses will prioritize resilience projects in Hawai‘i coming out of this latest crisis. Hawai‘i is already on a solid path toward a more sustainable and self-reliant future. We’ve reached our benchmark goal of 30% renewable electricity by 2020 on our way to the 100% clean energy mandate by 2045 – generating our own power is a huge step toward self-reliance.We’re also seeing battery energy storage technology advance to the point where microgrids are becoming more affordable and easier to implement. Microgrid systems are a part of the central grid, which provides stability, but they can also operate independently to offer reliable power during an outage. These investments are quick and impactful ways to strengthen our energy resilience and protect us when severe climate events strike.

How can local businesses and nonprofits join in this effort?

To keep supporting our local innovation economy and building resilience as a community, we have to be open to investing in new technology. Businesses and nonprofits can be a part of that by identifying opportunities for partnership that help drive progress. For example, a nonprofit that serves a rural community might see a real need for a microgrid or mini-grid to improve reliability of service and provide more resilient energy to areas that are harder hit by storms. Businesses might be able to provide funding, infrastructure, or other support. In the long term, we have to look at this as a community issue that requires a community effort.