Koko, Paele and I spent about an hour walking through a totally trashed landscape the other day, and I’m not talking about abandoned cars or litter. No, this was acres and acres of former sugar cane land now solely inhabited by such invasive scourges as guinea grass, java plum, African tulip and a creepily super-sized form of wedelia.
It was lushly green, and that’s always nice, though it wasn’t by any stretch of the imagination pretty in its aggressive, smothering sameness. As I walked, I thought about the legacy left by the plantation era: greatly altered landscapes like this one, residual poisons in the soil, silted reefs, captured streams. And it struck me that our current economic mainstay of tourism is creating its own tragic legacy. Only when it ends, it will leave behind ravaged coastlines. How much more abuse can poor Kauai take?
It brought to mind a conversation I had this week with a friend, who was quite passionately expressing his belief that hydro is a good thing and FERC is the place to start. I listened, because I like him and know him to be well-informed. But when the discussion turned to trust, and he said the KIUC Board is dominated by local guys, born and raised, and they’re not going to sell out the island or do it any harm, I had to ask, starting when?
Because this island — hell, all of Hawaii nei — is rife with examples of local guys, born and raised, selling out the island and doing it harm. Yeah, the money and devious plans might have from elsewhere, but they were the ones with the stamp of approval.
So now we are looking at the concept of using one legacy of the plantation era — its ditches, reservoirs and stream diversions — to generate electricity for the resorts, deluxe houses and military installations that have taken its place. And yes, the rest of us who are on the grid, too. But really, it’s primarily for the big users, because as KIUC CEO David Bissell told us at the meeting last Saturday, their hearty consumption essentially subsidizes the rest of us, thus keeping our bills lower than they otherwise would be.
It struck me, as I listened to my friend and walked through the abandoned cane lands, that we’re going about this in an ass-backwards way. We’re looking at alternatives to get off us oil and supposedly become more sustainable, even as we’re encouraging an inherently unsustainable industry to gorge on mass quantities of electricity with its 24/7 AC and lights and fountains and laundry facilities. I was told the monthly electric bill for the Marriott alone is in the range of $300,000. Now that’s a lot of juice. Or more correctly, hard evidence of a giant disconnect.
So while we’re caught up in discussions of whether we should follow a federal process, FERC, to explore hydroelectric power — which is not to say we shouldn’t be talking about it, because that’s what’s now before us — we’re skipping the discussion that should come first: how much energy do we really need, and for what purposes? How can we encourage people to change their expectations, alter their wasteful habits, so that we want, and thus use, far less energy?
And how sustainable is any alternative energy source, really, if it comes at the price of our precious streams (big hydro), remaining ag lands (solar “farms”) and native birds (windmills)?
Because the cheapest approach, the one with the least impact, is always going to be conservation. I know we could do a lot more in that area, though I understand it isn’t in the best interest of KIUC to push it, because it’s got an over-capacity oil-burning plant at Port Allen and a business model that needs super energy suckers to sustain it so we little users don’t stage a revolt or suffer economic hardship over outrageous utility bills that more accurately reflect the true environmental and social costs of generating electricity by any currently known, large-scale means.
It seems to me that faced with the reality of carbon-induced global climate change, the vagaries and insecurities of an oil-based economy, the inefficiencies of delivering electricity over long distances, the uncertain future of tourism and the unresponsiveness of utility monopolies, even those that are member-owned cooperatives, we need to be looking more carefully at site-specific, user-owned, decentralized systems for generating electricity, be it stream-surface hydro, roof-mounted solar panels or what have you.
Because despite what we’ve been told for the last 50 years, small is beautiful, tourism isn't gonna be around forever and this ain’t the mainland, with its natural gas, coal and oil reserves, and frontier mentality.
Or we can dump a bunch of money into studies that, if "successful," will result in projects that continue to squeeze Kauai and have essentially the same effect as pretty much everything else we've ever done in the name of "progress" and economic development. In other words, we'll keep selling out the island and doing her harm because we lack the courage to admit we’re traveling a fool’s road to the land of folly, and the imagination to chart a new course instead of a reworked version of the same-old, same-old.