Hawaii looks to sun, wind to help beat oil addiction

July 28, 2013

The Asahi Shimbun GLOBE

The ridges of Maui's hills are punctuated by tall, white objects that rotate majestically in the gales blowing in from the sea.

These are wind turbines, and their leisurely movements mask an electricity generating capacity of 50 megawatts, enough to meet 10–15 percent of the island's demand and provide electricity to 20,000 households.

Once Maui's other wind and solar power facilities are added to the equation, natural energy should be able to meet the electricity needs of half the island's 140,000 residents. Maui has begun trialing a "smart grid" that efficiently integrates these facilities into actual transmission networks.

According to Leon Roose from the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute, Hawaii is at the global cutting edge when it comes to the practical application of natural energies. Roose says Hawaii's energy structure is currently undergoing a "paradigm shift."

In autumn 2008, Hawaii announced a goal of meeting 40 percent of the state's electricity demand with natural energy by 2030.

In the latter half of the 2000s, soaring oil prices hammered home just how reliant Hawaii was on fossil fuels. "Simply stated, our current way is not sustainable. We must alter our course," said the website of the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative, a project set up by the state of Hawaii and the U.S. Department of Energy.

Of the 50 states in the United States, Hawaii is by far the most dependent on oil. Oil-fired power plants supply more than 70 percent of the state's electricity, more than six times that of Alaska, the next state most dependent on oil. When cars and airplanes are included, fossil fuels account for 90 percent of the state's energy consumption.

This puts Hawaii in a precarious situation, a fact that became all too obvious when oil prices surged temporarily to around $150 a barrel (around 15,000 yen), with electricity bills subsequently ballooning to more than three times the U.S. average.

The 40 percent goal for natural energy use is actually the highest among all 50 states. This is not a mere non-binding target, either; the government and power companies are obliged to meet it, says Traci Ho Kim from the Hawaii State Energy Office. "It is actually law," she explains.

Japan's New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO) is participating in Maui's smart grid, while Hitachi is constructing the grid system. An experiment will begin this autumn to integrate electric cars into the grid, too. Automobiles account for one-third of the island's energy use, says Roose, so Maui will remain addicted to oil unless this area is tackled too.

Sustainability is not just an issue for the energy sector, either. As tourist numbers swell, the problem of garbage disposal grows ever more urgent.

Hawaii produces just under three tons of garbage per person, more than twice the U.S. average. This is due to tourism, with five times more people visiting each year than actually live on the island. Most of these visitors flock to the island of Oahu, where 70 percent of the population live, too. As a result, Oahu is running out of landfill space to bury its mountains of trash. A last-ditch plan was cobbled together to export the garbage to Washington state on the U.S. West Coast, but this was eventually shelved on the back of local opposition. Talks are under way about building new disposal facilities within the island, but no concrete plans have emerged yet.

Trash from Asia or the U.S. West Coast also frequently winds up on Hawaii's beaches. Over the past 10 years, more than 700 tons of plastic bottles, plastic bags, fishing nets, buoys and other rubbish has been removed from the island’s shores. Plastic garbage is often found in the stomachs of seabirds or fish. Driftage from the tsunami that followed the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011 was also found last autumn.

"We have some of the best environment in the world ... so from a natural perspective, we have the most to defend," says Alan Arakawa, the mayor of Maui County. If Hawaii keeps expanding landfills, this may create more land, says Arakawa, but it will "sacrifice the ocean" by destroying the natural coastline and losing its beautiful scenery.

"The biggest issue we have is how to preserve the community and transfer it to the next generations," he says.

(This article was written by Ikuya Tanaka, senior staff writer of The Asahi Shimbun.)

* * * * * *


Wally Yonamine was born in Hawaii and went on to have a successful baseball career, first as a professional player in Japan and then as coach of the Chunichi Dragons. Yonamine was a nikkeijin, a foreign national with Japanese ancestry. His eldest son, Paul, has also enjoyed a rich and varied career, including a stint as senior adviser to the mayor of Honolulu. Paul gave us his opinions of Hawaii and Japan from the perspective of a nikkeijin.

* *

My grandfather came to Maui island from Okinawa when he was 16. He worked in a sugar cane field and married my grandmother, who also came over from Japan. Together they raised seven children, including my father.

I remember something my grandfather told me during a family picnic when I was a child. “When I came to Hawaii I was all alone, but look how big my family has grown,” he said with a smile.

When my father graduated from high school, he joined the San Francisco 49ers, a professional American football team, but a series of injuries soon ended that career. He then moved on to baseball and came to play in Japan. In his time at the 49ers, my father was the only non-white on the team and subsequently had trouble being accepted. He also had a hard time fitting in Japan because of his poor Japanese language ability.

My father was extremely grateful to Japan for taking him in. However, he maintained a strong identity as a Hawaiian. He loved Hawaii’s land, music and food.

Up until high school, I went to an international school in Japan. I then went to a university in the United States. I often fret over my identity, too, just like my father did.

Even now, I get nervous when explaining something or making a proposal in Japanese. I look like a Japanese person, so I’m worried people might take for a fool because of my poor language ability. At the same time, I am not simply an American, either. I am indeed, I suppose, a nikkeijin. And the number one home for nikkeijin like me is Hawaii.

The Japanese are the best tourists Hawaii could ask for. They get on and off airplanes promptly, keep their hotel rooms clean, and are always very polite. I think Hawaiian people should learn more about the lives of these loyal Japanese customers; about how they cram themselves daily onto packed trains and work so hard to save up for their annual trip to Hawaii. In this way, Hawaiians can get a sense of why the Japanese enjoy shopping in brand stores so much. This is their well-earned chance to kick back and live a little.

At the same time, I want Japanese people to take note of the many attractions Hawaii has to offer, rather than just staying in Waikiki for three nights and flying back home again. Hawaii is not just about tourism. Lying right between Japan and the United States and blessed with a warm climate, Hawaii also makes an ideal location for meetings or research. The University of Hawaii is a popular research center; it is a perfect spot to hold seminars on health care or medicine.

If Japanese people realize there is more to Hawaii than just tourism, this will help Hawaii to develop new industries. Youth unemployment is high in Hawaii, and many young people head to the U.S. mainland for work. Tourism is a wonderful industry, but Hawaii needs to diversify in order to survive and thrive.

I will definitely return to Hawaii one day. As a person with both Japanese and U.S. roots, I hope I can help bring the two nations closer.

* * *


Yonamine was born in Tokyo in 1957. His father, Wally Yonamine, was a professional baseball player and coach of the Chunichi Dragons. Paul graduated from the University of San Francisco. He served as president of KPMG Consulting Japan and president of Hitachi Consulting, among other positions. In March this year he became vice president of IBM Japan.

(This interview article was compiled by Noriko Akiyama of GLOBE.)

The Asahi Shimbun GLOBE
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The hills of Maui island bristle with electricity-generating wind turbines. (Ikuya Tanaka)

The hills of Maui island bristle with electricity-generating wind turbines. (Ikuya Tanaka)

  • The hills of Maui island bristle with electricity-generating wind turbines. (Ikuya Tanaka)
  • Paul Yonamine (Photo by Kazuyoshi Sako)
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