Public Opposition Forces High Electricity Prices in Hawaii

The article below was Published October 2, 2014 in Environmental Leader.

In 1993 the Puna Geothermal Venture power plant opened in the state of Hawaii and established the state as a leader in geothermal technology as an early adopter. The plant is designed to take advantage of the incredible heat generated by the largest volcano on earth, Mauna Loa. It has been over two decades since the opening of this first power plant, and it might be natural to assume that geothermal energy production in volcanic Hawaii has prospered since then. However, Hawaii currently has the most expensive electricity rates in the United States due to its continued dependence on imported energy.

Because Hawaii lacks vast reserves of coal or natural gas, energy imports remain the norm, such that in 2010, the state imported a whopping 94 percent of its energy. However, one the largest natural sources of power that Hawaii does possess is geothermal activity from volcanoes. Unfortunately, further geothermal progress beyond the 20 year-old Puna plant has been held up by staunch opposition from some state residents. For this reason, electricity in Hawaii is twice as expensive as the next highest state, Alaska, and nearly three times the US average. It is an ironic paradox that the state is entirely a product of active geothermic activity, but this form energy is hardly being utilized to increase local energy production and lower electricity costs.

Objections to geothermal energy exploration and production in Hawaii stem in part from residents who would prefer not to live near a geothermal facility. These objectors are putting forth a “Not in My Backyard” (or NIMBY) argument that is prevalent for many types of energy proposals. Though geothermal energy generation is practically emission free, these opponents place more emphasis on misconceptions about negative land value adjustments, gas emissions, and odors rather than the state-wide benefits of inexpensive, local, sustainable power for all Hawaiians.

With states devoting a larger share of energy portfolios to renewable sources, there exists great opportunity for the geothermal industry. As the nation progresses deeper into the 21st century renewable sources of energy will become a key part of every state’s energy portfolio. What geothermal energy providers must ask themselves now is what can be done going forward to reach every resident near a potential geothermal project to make sure supporters are identified so costly delays in the approval process can be avoided. There are several effective tactics detailed below than can be pursued to ensure a clean and affordable energy future for Hawaii.

Announce Wisely

Whether a geothermal project is announced softly or through a detailed press conference, it is important from day one to lay out the facts of the proposal and present details about community benefits. Direct mailers that hit households on launch day are an effective way to present a project’s key points to all community members. An effective mailer is one that gives a voice to its recipient by including a tear-off comment section that can be returned with the contact information of supporters interested in assisting the campaign.

Expand Support

Trailing the mailer with a phone call affords companies an opportunity to utilize a persuasive script highlighting the project’s benefits to identify a broad base of supporters. While these calls will not produce scientific survey results as polling would, a company can gain useful input on the points of messaging that need to be strengthened to win over undecideds based on their responses.

Address Neighbors

It is important to remember that when a company chooses a site for a proposed geothermal project, it is asking community members to accept the company as a new neighbor. As a result companies should reach out separately to project abutters to try to alleviate any immediate concerns shortly after project announcement. An open house style event is an effective means to solicit community input and answer questions among this group. Open houses are effective because a company can present its goals in casual context, with individual interaction between concerned residents and project experts. This format takes away the opposition’s ability to grandstand a presentation-style event and assume control of dialogue. Additionally, this individualized interaction allows a company to directly identify the supporters among the attendees who can play a critical role throughout a public outreach campaign. The earlier these supporters can be identified the sooner they can create the positive dialogue every company launching a new project needs.

Maintain an Updated Database

A common mistake companies make when carrying out a public outreach campaign is focusing on data collection without ever using it to further goals. Make sure to coordinate with your supporters directly to manage objectives. To do so, maintain a supporter database with phone numbers and email addresses appended in addition to other relevant demographics such as political affiliation, income, and voter district. Companies must strive to arm their proponents with the information and equipment necessary to be effective, and a well-organized database allows for targeted communications. The results of all direct mail responses, telephone identification, and email inquiries should be added to this supporter database as well for use when it comes time to actually ask residents “Will you write a letter of support or attend a hearing to assist the campaign?”

Enable your Advocacy Network

A great way of mobilizing supporters is to identify key advocates who are truly passionate about the success of a geothermal proposal and engaging them to develop an organic growth of social media support. As the top-down communication of an organization’s brand declines in relevance, peer-to-peer grassroots-style contact becomes essential. By providing these key advocates with the resources necessary to create and maintain a Facebook page and/or Twitter account, they will take on campaign messaging and spread its reach to within their network of friends and followers. Supporters will begin sharing their narratives of support online to make them more comfortable sharing when it comes time to run a letter to the editor drive or speak at a public hearing. A supporter-led social media effort will keep local government on the side of supporters and help to ensure the long term viability of the project.

Every groundbreaking industry is subject to a degree of skepticism that can be harnessed by opponents to prevent a disruption of the status quo. Hawaiian geothermal is no exception. Though opponents may be a minority of the population, they are influential enough to prevent geothermal from taking hold to end the era of high electricity rates and unsustainable importation of out-of-state energy sources. Hawaii sits atop a magnificent natural resource, but the geothermal industry will continue to run into opposition until the myths that have prevented further development are addressed. With strategic implementation of the preceding tactics, geothermal energy can be of great use to Hawaii, but first, the supportive voice must surface through the commotion created by the opposition.