Scott Glenn believes his environmental planning background is shaping his approach at the State Energy Office, including his push for community outreach. The state’s transition to 100% clean energy could be eased if the public is brought in at early planning stages.
Protests over wind energy come to mind. And the pending reopening of Puna Geothermal Venture on Hawaii island, closed since the 2018 eruptions, brings up safety concerns that could be addressed through public education about technological advances. The proposed PGV power purchase agreement, for example, includes a community outreach plan.
Newer technology could make geothermal possible at other sites, too.
“Are there other opportunities for geothermal in Hawaii, other locations?” Glenn asked rhetorically. “Are there communities willing to have that in their neighborhood? I don’t know that Hawaii’s really had that discussion.”
In September, Glenn, then directing the Office of Environmental Quality Control, was named the chief energy officer; he is set to undergo his confirmation hearing today. He joined the agency after its staffing became part of the state’s general fund, a result of a 2018 state audit.
He is also in the Legislature this session seeking support for community outreach. It would feature what’s called the Hawaii Advanced Visualization Environment Nexus (HAVEN), a modeling tool developed through a competitive grant.
Briefly, the system uses data to create a visual of a project — an array of solar cells, for example — to show people how it would look on the landscape to achieve an energy goal.
“It’s really cool,” said Glenn, 41. “And, like, elementary school kids see it, and they totally get it. There are knobs that they could twist and see different alternatives. …
“Something that people, I think, aren’t aware enough of, is all of our 100% scenarios right now include offshore wind,” he added. “I don’t think that’s really sunk in with folks … why solar and batteries are not going to be enough.”
Question: How do you respond to recent reports that nations have fallen behind in carbon-reduction goals?
Answer: I believe it underscores the urgent need for leadership and action at the state and local level.
I was privileged to be able to represent Hawaii at the recent United Nations climate summit in Madrid. Unfortunately, the summit did not produce the results that the world had hoped for in terms of moving climate action forward. Greenhouse gas emissions are warming the planet more rapidly than previously believed, and that action to reverse this is urgently needed.
While we were disappointed with the outcome of the summit, it was encouraging to see the passion displayed by civil society groups, which mobilized thousands of people in the streets of Madrid to press for concrete steps to counter climate change.
The summit also showed that the leadership of subnational players such as the state of Hawaii and our counties, especially through networks like the U.S. Climate Alliance and the Climate Mayors, respectively, will play a bigger role in helping to solve our climate crisis.
Q: A state audit in 2018 noted the need for better definition of the Energy Office mission and priorities. Has that happened?
A: The state Legislature provided the Energy Office greater clarity in its mission with the passage of Act 122, a law that also restructured the Energy Office.
The act states: “The purpose of the Hawaii state energy office shall be to promote energy efficiency, renewable energy, and clean transportation to help achieve a resilient clean energy economy.” The act also directs the chief energy officer to support Hawaii’s clean economy (decarbonization) goals.
In response to the auditor, the Energy Office had updated its Strategic Plan, which covered the office’s mission, vision, goals, objectives, strategies and action plans. The Strategic Plan is being updated to reflect the new changes from the Legislature and input and collaboration with stakeholders.
Q: Are there any technological advances on the horizon that seem promising to you?
A: The pace of innovation in clean energy is quite exciting. Many people are aware of what’s going on with renewable energy like solar and batteries, but there is also a lot happening on the energy-efficiency side of the equation.
Smarter design and understanding of the way systems work has been referred to as the “invisible energy bonanza” by Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute. Lovins notes that millions of small improvements over the past few decades — insulation, better motors, recovering waste heat, more-frugal chemical reactions, and numerous benefits of careful engineering — add up to efficiency gains that now provide more global energy services than oil or any other fuel.
There are further gains to be made in these areas, and we must continue to focus our attention on them. One area where the Energy Office is a leader in this regard is updating energy codes.
Q: How would you say your background in environmental planning influences your approach to your current job, if at all?
A: One of the fundamental ideas in environmental planning is that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Many things we do have impacts that are not reflected in the price we pay or the traditional way we make decisions.
Instead of accounting for the full cost of what we do, many of our activities are subsidized by the impacts we have on our environment, such as all the plastic washing up on our beaches. Energy and climate change is one of the biggest examples of this.
Working in environmental planning, we are trained to work collaboratively with people across all sectors to think holistically about all of the factors that go into achieving a desired outcome that benefits society and the environment.
Q: Given some of the public pushback on wind energy and geothermal, how do you evaluate Hawaii’s prospects of meeting energy goals?
A: We are confident Hawaii will be able to meet its clean energy goals even with the challenge of finding suitable sites for renewable energy projects in our land-constrained state. One of the keys will be ensuring that local people have a chance to be involved early in conversations when projects are still being developed.
Government officials and energy developers need to make early community engagement a top priority while being as open and transparent as possible in project development. We also must do a better job of informing the public about the benefits of clean energy for our economy and environment in comparison to the negative impacts of fossil fuels.
Q: Is Hawaii still a leader in renewable energy, or has all the low-hanging fruit been scooped up?
A: Being a leader is not so much about going after the low-hanging fruit — that’s the easy stuff that anyone can do.
Hawaii’s leadership in clean energy stems from several factors unique to our island archipelago, such as our geographic isolation, over-reliance on fossil fuel, and the negative impacts of climate change that we are already seeing.
The leadership of our elected officials to acknowledge these factors and pursue island-based solutions has resulted in a number of firsts, including being the first state to commit to 100% renewable energy in the power sector by a certain date, and the first state to align its policies with the Paris Accord.
Those only look easy looking back. Hawaii continues to push the envelope in both policy and technology development on our path to a decarbonized economy no later than 2045.
Hawaii’s leadership is recognized through its engagement with federal agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Energy, Department of Defense, Environmental Protection Agency, as well as its involvement with other entities, including the National Association of State Energy Offices, National Governors Association, and the U.S. Climate Alliance, and internationally through events like the United Nations climate summit and sustainable development goals and our engagement with other island governments around the world.