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A bright idea

What a concept: Energy efficiency is within your power

By Vicki Viotti

LAST UPDATED: 2:23 p.m. HST, Aug 5, 2011

One of the most worrisome things about life in Hawaii is its cost, and yet it's hard to get people to act on one of its principal drivers: the price they pay for energy. That, said James Koshiba, may be because they feel it's beyond their control.

"Most of the time we talk about energy in terms of big ideas or policies, wind, geothermal," he said. "There's very little conversation about the individual responsibility for building a more sustainable Hawaii, and yet that responsibility is enormous. Household electricity use and personal transportation, they're the lion's share of what we use."

People have heard all the statistics about how dependent we all are on oil. They cringe when they watch prices tick up on signs posted outside gas stations. But mostly they shrug when asked what they intend to do about it. "What can we do?" would be a typical reply.

Trying to counter the consumers' general sense of powerlessness is what's behind the Energy Challenge, a monthlong campaign to urge a reduction in energy use by 25 percent (combining electricity, synthetic natural gas, liquid petroleum gas or gasoline), basing the comparison on the utility bills and gasoline receipts for June.

It's sponsored by Kanu Hawaii (, the nonprofit organization where Koshiba works as executive director. Kanu is primarily a volunteer network of people trying to weave "sustainability," that buzz word favored by government types, into their real lives. Kanu's modus operandi consists of an annual series of personal challenges oriented around different problems confronting the state. Reducing household and business rubbish, supporting locally grown food, building stronger relationships with neighbors, and engaging with government are among the current targets Kanu tries to hit.

Somehow, Koshiba acknowledged, Kanu has had an easier time drawing participants to those challenges than this one: About 400 had signed on to participate at some level about a week into the July campaign, instead of the thousand or two planners had hoped to see.

"It's hard for people to wrap their head around it," he said. "We don't have an emotional connection to it like we do our food."

Kanu tries to break it down for participants each week. The action for Week 1 is the audit: getting a grip on the current reality of how much energy they consume. There are options ranging from easy ("I will learn how to properly read and understand my utility bills") to hard ("I will buy a home energy monitor through KanuValues and report back to our data tracking hub").

Those who signed on at the start (just after the July 4 holiday) will have finished two challenges, including last week's close encounter with the energy hogs among their household appliances. They were asked to ratchet down their hot-water heater by at least 5 degrees and look for other ways to save.

Today marks the start of the Week 3 Transportation Challenge, in which they can check for fuel efficiency in their car — inflating tires, emptying the trunk, clearing air filters, that kind of stuff. But the ultimate push is to "dump the pump" and use alternative transportation for the whole week. Koshiba, lucky enough to live and work in Kaimuki, has vowed to walk to the office for as much of the challenge as possible.

Finally the campaign ends with participants committing to make an "outreach" effort — talking to friends about conservation at one end of the spectrum to creating a video or other digital presentation to be uploaded to the Kanu site.

There are ways throughout the campaign for sharing the pain and tips, as the case may be. Among those journaling about the experience, not surprisingly, are staff members such as Olin Lagon, director of Kanu social ventures whom Koshiba calls the "Gadget Guy." His blog lists a number of energy-saving gizmos such as a "smart power strip" that turns off energy to devices that are switched off.

People rarely keep track of the energy they're wasting, Lagon said.

"You can't manage what you can't measure," he said. "Think about all the conversations people have about their cell phone service — ‘I can add this service, but I can save money if I go with this company.' But we don't do that with energy.

"We're just clueless on what's causing our bills to be what they are."

Consumers often need sweeteners to persuade them to change their habits. The challenge offers rewards to the most successful energy misers, including a solar water heater, a lighting retrofit to cut energy waste and various gift certificates.

Incentives work on an ongoing basis, of course, which is what occupies Derrick Sonoda on a full-time basis. Sonoda is director of operations for Hawaii Energy, the company under contract to the Public Utilities Commission to run the state's conservation and efficiency programs, and he's on the team helping Kanu with the challenge.

The Legislature appropriates funds for rebates and other programs aimed at encouraging the purchase of solar heaters, photovoltaic (PV) cells and other devices that curb Hawaii's collective use of fossil fuels. The money is held by the PUC, but Hawaii Energy gets the payments out to qualifying consumers.

But there's an educational mission as well.

"What we do at Hawaii Energy is we would like people to start paying attention to oil prices," Sonoda said. "Hawaii is the only state that generates 78 percent of its electricity from oil.

"We kind of remind people, it's not just the lights and the air conditioning that uses energy, it's everything. If you go to your doctor, you're using electricity, with all the equipment there, which also had to be brought in to Hawaii.

"When you buy a spam musubi, everything that was involved in making that spam musubi is dependent on oil," he added. "People might say, ‘I put PV on my house.' Yes, you did that, but what about your neighbor?"

Not everyone can afford to install costly devices, even with the rebates, but there are many ways to make do with less.

"Conserving electricity, instead of doing PV, is something everyone can do," Sonoda said.

Koshiba said he realized the prevailing attitude is that Americans have become so accustomed to energy consumption at lavish levels that fossil-fuel electricity must be replaced, kilowatt for kilowatt, by renewable energy at the same levels. That proposition seems utterly daunting.

"Most decisions are being based on the assumption that people aren't going to change," he said. "We want to challenge that assumption: If we expect the worst of people that's what we'll get."

Kanu devotees are unapologetically idealistic, but they see a reason to expect progress toward that ideal. Concern about energy gluttony has expanded over the decades from environmental circles to the larger community, Koshiba said, and he wants to see that continue.

"In the past we haven't thought of this as a moral issue, we've always framed this as an environmental issue," he said. "But it really is our responsibility to the next generation.

"When you elevate it to that level, that's where big social shifts happen."


Anyone who wants to join the Kanu Hawaii Energy Challenge 2011 already in progress can still do so by clicking the link about midway down the home page ( Some pointers for the journey:

» A home energy audit is a good way to see how you compare with your neighbors. Two online calculator sites are offered, the Home Energy Saver Program from the U.S. Department of Energy ( and the Hohm Program from Microsoft ( Simply entering your zip code in the Microsoft tool will give you a community average.

» From the main portal (, check out some of the reading links on the right, including downloadable logs for tracking how you're doing with your appliances. Or, from the main page, go to the bottom link, then click onto "share your story" to blog or video post.

» You can dredge up scary facts, too, including this one: A DVR can cost about $100 annually to run. Every hour you use appliances, the money flows out: 74 cents for the water heater, 52 cents for the clothes dryer, 25 cents for the stove.

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