HONOLULU, January 8, 2013 ― Located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the Hawaiian Islands are one of the most unique and beautiful ecosystems in the world. Because of its small size and isolation from the rest of the world, Hawaii’s special challenges have underlined the urgent need for clean energy and heightened stewardship of the fragile environment.
I had the chance to interview Robert Harris, director of the Hawaii Sierra Club for a perspective on the most important environmental issues of 2013 and how America’s Fiftieth State can be a model for the rest of the nation to follow.
Danny de Gracia: This is a new year and we have a completely new set of elected officials at all levels of government. What do you think are some of the major environmental challenges that need to be addressed this year by policymakers?
Robert Harris: Plainly, one of the top priorities will be attempting to address Hawaii’s solar tax credits. Hawaii’s solar industry has been one of the shining success stories, and we need to have well-crafted tax incentives that allow the solar industry to continue to thrive, yet still watch the bottom line in the state budget.
DDG: What do you think can be done to make solar panels more affordable to people? I know that tax credits is one part, but some people are complaining that the cost is hard to afford.
Harris: Trying to overcome the up-front cost of renewable energy is a challenge. One of the bills we anticipate the state administration introducing is a financing program that could compliment an on-bill financing program. The idea is that people could borrow money to install solar on their rooftops and pay the cost of their load through their electric bills over time.
The fundamental issue and the quiet battle going on between large centralized power sources and the more broad, distributed power, like solar on a rooftop or a small windmill – a lot of it really revolves around an arcane topic. You have utility engineers in involved in a debate over whether renewable energy can come online or not and Hawaii essentially having such a small grid, we’re seeing these issues coming up a lot quicker and a lot more suddenly. The mainland’s having this debate and discussions too.
So while the tax credit has gotten the limelight, a broad underlying issue of where is the nation going forward in investments and electricity … we’ve tackled on these issues to help the public understand.
DDG: So what are your thoughts about the Public Land Development Corporation? Do you think that it will be repealed in the upcoming Hawaii legislative session?
Harris: I think it will be repealed. I think many legislators acknowledge a mistake happened and they’re ready to correct it.
DDG: What do you think can be done to prevent future situations where laws like Act 55 and the PLDC are created? Obviously that’s a mistake that we don’t want to see repeated.
Harris: Yes. First, we need to make sure that legislation occurs in a public and transparent manner. Some of the worst parts of the Public Lands Development Corporation were tacked on at the last minute with no public notice and good legislation isn’t crafted in a vacuum, it should be a public way such that everyone’s thoughts and ideas are incorporated to ensure we have the best legislation come out.
The debate around the Public Lands Development Corporation has been beneficial and that certain values have been highlighted and accentuated. People want efficient government and they also want to ensure that Hawaii’s pristine beauty is preserved for future generations.
DDG: You mentioned Hawaii’s pristine beauty, a lot of people are starting to get concerned about the condition of Hawaii’s coral reefs. Do you think that there’s anything that can be done to help protect and save the reefs from further damage?
Harris: Hawaii’s coral reefs are under a number of different threats. The overarching 800 pound gorilla is the threat of climate change. Obviously we’re looking for ways to mitigate climate change and looking for ways to make our coral reefs more resilient is critical. Impacts include obviously pollution, algae introduction … this is not an easy problem to tackle and yet it is a critical one that we have to do and it does probably start with ensuring that the agencies that oversee this are appropriately funded and have the tools to tackle the problem.
DDG: Do you think that the Hawaii legislature should maybe consider a funding increase for the protection of coral reefs or is this something that should be done at a federal level?
Harris: I suspect it’s going to have to be done by both. The state has underfunded the agencies that are in charge of overseeing the health of Hawaii’s oceans and watersheds and per capita we spend less on our water resources than just about any other state. So it is critical that we step up the funding so that they have the tools and resources to address the problems.
DDG: Wow, that’s unfortunate. You know you’d kind of think that given Hawaii’s location and its unique situations that it would be a no-brainer to prioritize that funding. Do you think there’s a reason why the legislature hasn’t stepped up in that area?
Harris: I think sometimes when you’re surrounded by so much beauty it’s easy to take it for granted. Ultimately there needs to be a public call for consistent funding [rather than] trying to fight for a piece of the pie, there needs to be funding for resource protection.
DDG: What can our readers do if they’re interested in getting more involved in protecting the environment and being more active stewards of the earth? What can they do to get more involved and to make a difference?
Harris: One of the things that we’re proud of creating is a program called Capitol Watch. It’s run almost exclusively by volunteers who actually track different areas of legislation and policy and will communicate what’s happening and give people the opportunity to speak up on the issues that interest them. So for example, there are people tracking recycling and waste or ocean issues and the idea is they’ll tell people to get engaged on things that interest them the most.
There are also more hands on opportunities, for instance just getting involved in a service project, and those are going on through the Sierra Club and also through dozens, if not hundreds of community organizations all around the state. A lot of people just like to get dirty for a weekend and do something to help the environment.
DDG: That sounds like a lot of fun!
Harris: It can be!
We greatly appreciate Mr. Harris and the Hawaii Sierra Club for the opportunity to interview him. For more information about the Hawaii Sierra Club, visit their official site here.
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