David Bissell’s Toyota Tundra crunches to a stop in the reddish dirt and gravel road as the first heads appear in the grass. A few sheep come into view, but, startled by the trucks, they skitter away through the unruly vegetation surrounding a network of solar panels. After a few moments, they calm and return to work, munching away on the island’s ever-present guinea grass.

These are the ovine foot soldiers in one of the most ambitious renewable energy revolutions in the United States. The Lawa‘i solar and energy storage project on the island of Kauai employs 300 sheep to keep the invasive guinea grass from engulfing the solar panels that supply 11% of the island’s electricity. This project is on the leading edge of a statewide effort to achieve 100% renewable energy by the year 2045. 

In 2015 Hawaii became the first U.S. state to mandate a total transition to renewable energy. With exceptionally high energy prices and an ingrained environmental ethos, Hawaii has positioned itself as a pioneer in the quest to move toward a future free of fossil fuels. But promises are easy to make. Achieving them is another story.

Lawmakers, energy providers, and communities around the country are watching to see if the 50th state will be able to make good on the pledge to become America’s first green energy economy. 

“We passed our [renewable portfolio standards] at a time when people said it was politically, technologically, and financially impossible,” says Hawaii Democratic state Rep. Chris Lee, an early booster of the state’s clean energy initiative. “No one had ever done the due diligence to figure out how this could be achieved.”

As the world confronts the possibility of more than 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming in the next 15 to 30 years, the race is on here and around the globe to transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. Solar and wind power have become competitive with other energy sources only in the past few years, and the technology is rapidly becoming more reliable and cost-effective as battery storage improves.

California, New Mexico, Washington, New York, Nevada, and Maine have already followed Hawaii’s lead and adopted legislation calling for 100% reliance on clean energy by various dates in the future. A handful of other states have set less ambitious goals of between 30% and 50% dependence on renewables. Mr. Lee is working with legislators in half a dozen more states, including Minnesota, Massachusetts, and Colorado, that are exploring clean energy mandates of their own.

Yet the challenges facing all these states – as well as Hawaii – are numerous. All, for instance, will have to go through a substantial culture shift, encouraging changes in consumer habits and weaning utilities off conventional forms of energy that have been around for more than a century. All will have to overcome practical problems such as revamping electrical grids to keep pace with the proliferation of rooftop solar.

Yet Hawaii also faces challenges unique to itself. These include some as fundamental as the difficulty of transmitting electricity among the eight major islands that make up this bejeweled archipelago, and others as unpredictable as dealing with the presence of an endangered bat the size of a salt shaker that is drawn to wind turbines. 

Will Hawaii emerge as America’s king of green energy or just be a well-intentioned pretender to the throne?

Wind turbines in the Kohala Coast of the Big Island of Hawaii. Credit: Bill Adams Getty Images

Building momentum

Under the 2015 law, Hawaii must meet interim renewable portfolio standards of 30% by 2020, 40% by 2030, and 70% by 2040. Hitting these benchmarks, particularly the early ones, is considered crucial to the success of the program. 

“The key thing is to get started with steady, relatively quick growth,” says Rob Sargent, senior director of the Campaign for 100% Renewable Energy at the Denver-based nonprofit Environment America. Mr. Sargent says states that build momentum early – either through rate policies or legislative mandates, or as a result of simple market economics – end up achieving the most success later.

And Hawaii is doing well so far. By the end of 2017, the state was generating 28% of its utility sales from renewable sources, according to the Public Utilities Commission’s most recent annual report to the Legislature. Getting to the next goal, 40%, shouldn’t be too difficult, either.

“We’re pretty much going to blow that one out of the water,” says Scott Seu, a spokesman for Hawaiian Electric Co., the state’s largest utility, which serves Oahu.

For now, solar and wind power dominate the state’s renewable mix, having outpaced production from biomass, geothermal, and hydroelectric facilities. Yet the majority of the state’s electricity is still produced by petroleum- and coal-fired power plants.

With no fossil fuel reserves of its own, Hawaii has the highest energy costs in the country. There has always been an abundance of renewable sources to tap – sun, wind, waves, volcanoes – but it has taken a shift in political will and a drop in photovoltaic and turbine prices for the state to turn away from oil, gas, and coal.

“We’re trying to push ourselves to expand our thinking so we don’t approach the problem the same old way,” says Mr. Seu.

The Hawaii incubator

An assortment of fringe renewable energy projects is in various stages of development throughout the islands that could ultimately contribute to Hawaii’s green portfolio. This includes several efforts to harness one of Hawaii’s most abundant resources: the ocean. 

Researchers at the U.S. Marine Corps and the University of Hawai‘i at Ma–noa as well as private companies are exploring the potential of wave energy. The company Honolulu Seawater Air Conditioning wants to use water pumped from the deep sea to cool buildings in downtown Honolulu, effectively eliminating 1% of the energy demand for the island of Oahu. Another Oahu-based company, Makai, is cultivating a process that uses the temperature differential between cold deep-sea waters and warm surface waters to generate energy.

“Hawaii is a great incubator because it’s small,” says Mr. Bissell, president and chief executive officer of the Kauai Island Utility Cooperative.

In 2017, KIUC teamed up with Tesla, the electric carmaker, on a project to store power produced by solar energy in a large-scale battery system. The cooperative model made it easier to take a risk on a long-term project, Mr. Bissell says.

The co-op continues to lead the way in “solar-plus-storage” with the sprawling Lawa‘i solar farm here tended by the grass-shearing sheep. The nearly 200-acre network of glistening solar panels incorporates the world’s largest operational solar-plus-storage facility. It has the capacity to hold 100 megawatt-hours of electricity. Battery storage is crucial for any intermittent sources of power, like solar and wind energy, so utilities can provide power when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing.

“These projects do more than bring in energy at night,” says Mr. Bissell. “They improve reliability because they can make up for outages in other parts of the system.”

Solar power is by far the fastest-growing source of renewable energy in the state. 

While wind generation has gained a firm foothold in Texas, California, and several Plains states, it has found less traction in Hawaii. One reason: birds. 

Kauai, for instance, has long been a haven for two endangered species of seabirds, the Newell’s shearwater and the Hawaiian petrel. While both are present on other islands, they are more prevalent on Kauai where there are no natural predators. Conservationists and others worry about the turbine blades’ effect on seabird populations.

Oahu, on the other hand, has invested heavily in wind power, despite concerns from community members about the noise and what they perceive as the unsightliness of the massive blades. Another concern could prove to be problematic on the island, though: the deaths of the Hawaiian hoary bat, the state’s only native land mammal.

“Modern-day smokestacks”

The drive up Oahu’s iconic windward coastline starts on the ancient cliffs of Makapu‘u, luring tourists – or visitors, as Hawaii residents call them – to the sapphire and turquoise waters of Hanauma Bay. Long past the marine parks, the hushed Valley of the Temples, and the zip lines and ATV tours of Kualoa Ranch, the Kamehameha Highway gives way to coastal farms of macadamia nuts, taro, and passion fruit. 

Oahu’s North Shore was the last corner of the island to be settled by Native Hawaiians, but the first to be discovered by white settlers. In the 19th century, the rich agricultural lands tended by native residents were converted into sugar and pineapple plantations, transforming the region’s landscape, economy, and demography, as Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino workers arrived to work the land.

Plantations held their grip on the North Shore for most of the 20th century. But in recent years, residents have slowly begun to reclaim the land. The island’s last remaining sugar plantation closed in 1996. Community organizations founded with the promise of “keeping the country, country” have blocked most large development projects here, and small farms have once again begun to flourish. 

In 2016, Turtle Bay Resort relinquished nearly 500 acres of farmland to the Trust for Public Land and North Shore Community Land Trust, a victory for the sustainable agriculture movement that hopes to wean the state off dependence on imported produce. 

State Sen. Gil Riviere, a Democrat, worries that the state’s push for renewable energy could jeopardize that promise. As co-director of Keep the North Shore Country, he is on the front lines of the effort to block development of the Na Pua Makani Wind Project.

“Windmills are modern-day smokestacks,” says Mr. Riviere. “If you think about it, 150 years ago people thought smokestacks were awesome because they symbolized progress.”

In his role as a state senator, he hears a lot of complaints about windmills from his North Shore constituents. “We are very supportive of renewable energy,” says one of them, Te–vita Ka‘ili, speaking for his family. “However we have one major concern about industrial wind turbines. It has to do with the killing of the ‘ope‘ape‘a, or the hoary bat.”

Weighing just half an ounce, Hawaiian hoary bats are notoriously difficult to count, since they are solitary and easily disappear into treetop roosts. No one knows how many hoary bats call these islands home, but anecdotally, residents say they used to encounter more of them than they do now, according to Kristin Jonasson, a bat expert who spent a year and a half studying the tiny mammals.

Wind developers expected that turbines would kill some endangered bats, but data from the state Department of Land and Natural Resources has found that the mortality rate has far surpassed initial projections. An estimated 146 hoary bats were killed at the state’s five largest wind farms in just six years, 2.6 times the projected rate of 187 deaths over 20 years.

For many, the losses carry a heavy cultural burden. The hoary bat is sacred to many Polynesian cultures. It is considered one of the many manifestations of the Native Hawaiian Lono deity, and some Native Hawaiian families consider bats to be their ancestral guardians, or ‘aumakua

While Mr. Ka‘ili, a cultural anthropologist and chair of the Department of International Cultural Studies at Brigham Young University-Hawaii, lauds the motivation behind the push for wind power, he worries that it comes at too steep a cost. “It’s just sort of contradictory to me that we’re saving the environment by destroying the bats,” he says.

Clouds over solar

The push to tap the sun presents both problems and promise for Hawaii, too. The state leads the nation in rooftop solar installation.

Solar panels make long-term economic sense for homeowners in this sun-kissed paradise. A limited number of no-interest loans are available to offset installation costs, and residents can take advantage of state and federal tax credits (though federal incentives are set to phase out after 2019). 

While rooftop panels can yield major savings for homeowners, renters and people living in multifamily homes or condominiums typically can’t take advantage of those benefits. That disparity can deepen an already steep economic divide in a state where a billionaire can own an entire island while half of all residents live paycheck to paycheck.

The surge in solar panels has put a strain on utilities as well. The mismatch of timing between peak daytime generation and peak evening demand means that power generated from home solar installations can quickly flood the grid during the day. On Molokai, one of the smallest of Hawaii’s main islands, excess residential solar power flowing to the grid has actually become a safety concern, says Gregg Kresge, manager of renewable energy projects for Maui Electric Co., which serves the islands of Maui, Lanai, and Molokai. The issue has become enough of a problem that the company has a pilot program to provide batteries for residential use to avoid overloading the grid. 

Molokai was at one point projected to hit 100% renewable as soon as 2020. But after receiving stiff criticism for failing to solicit adequate community input before approving a solar power plant last year, Maui Electric has slowed its plans. 

Malama ‘aina

Similar sentiments emerged at a recent community meeting in Maui, which the company co-hosted with the Maui chapter of the Sierra Club of Hawai‘i and Maui Tomorrow Foundation. Residents and advocates expressed support for the 100% renewable initiative, but also concern that the goal should not be met at any cost. Many in attendance were reluctant to support wind farms out of concern for the islands’ endangered birds. Others urged the utility and the planning commission to put solar panels on rooftops and in abandoned lots before erecting massive solar farms on pristine undeveloped land.

Mui is a mythical figure in Native Hawaiian lore who has unusual powers. He can lasso the sun’s rays to slow its passage across the sky and lengthen the day.

At the recent community meeting in Maui, organizers opened with comments from Kapono‘ai Molitau, a Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner, or kumu, who recounted the tale of Ma–ui. It was intended to show both the importance of the sun and the importance of being sensitive to native culture as Hawaii tries to forge a green future. 

Hawaii is the only U.S. state that has never had a white majority. While Hawaiian residents hail from around the world, many have adopted the native ethos of malama ‘aina, the idea of caring for the land in a way that won’t harm it for future generations. 

In the past, Hawaii’s utilities have faced sharp rebukes for failing to take into account the cultural needs of Native Hawaiians when developing other forms of renewable energy. On Kauai, hydroelectric projects that date back to the island’s plantation era drained streams dry when the water was diverted to support big agriculture. The siphoning led to the decline in traditional taro farming by Native Hawaiians, a practice that is only now seeing a revival. Some groups here oppose a plan by KIUC to maintain these hydroelectric projects for this reason.

“This is a perfect example of when we should chart a new path and not just do business as usual,” says Isaac Moriwake, Honolulu-based attorney for the environmental group Earthjustice. “We can meet the goals without having to trample on other people’s rights or prolong 100-year-old injustices.”

KIUC’s Mr. Bissell says the co-op is attempting to do just that by including Native Hawaiians in development plans for a new pumped-storage hydroelectric project on the west side of Kauai. Those plans are still in the early stages of development, but Hermina Morita, a former state legislator who is part Native Hawaiian, is encouraged by those efforts.

“I really see a lot of hope on Kauai,” says Ms. Morita, a former chair of the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission. 

In the end, Hawaii, like other states, will have many problems to surmount if it is to point the way toward a green economy of tomorrow. But advocates are confident it can be done and, for the sake of the planet, needs to be done, both here and across the country. “If we’re the only state that moves to 100% renewable energy, even if we did it tomorrow, it would mean nothing if everyone else didn’t come with us,” says Mr. Lee, the state lawmaker.

This story was a collaboration between The Christian Science Monitor and Honolulu Civil Beat. It’s part of a pilot exchange program between the Monitor and local newsrooms. The story was produced with support from an Energy Foundation grant to cover the environment. 

This story originally appeared in The Christian Science Monitor and the Honolulu Civil Beat. It is republished here as part ofScientific American’s partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.