It’s the end of a dirty era in Hawaii. The state’s last-ever coal shipment arrived in Oahu on Wednesday, bound for the last remaining coal-fired power plant, which is due to shut down in September.
The newly arrived 15,000 tons of coal are for the AES Hawaii power plant, the largest power plant on Oahu and the biggest source of the island’s electricity. The 180-megawatt plant provided 13% of the state’s overall power in 2018.
“This week Hawai‘i is receiving its final shipment of coal,” Governor David Ige said in a statement. “This is a huge step forward in Hawaiʻi’s transition to clean energy. In its time, coal was an important resource for Hawaii and I’d like to thank the workers who have run our last remaining coal plant.
“Renewable energy projects to replace coal are coming online with more on the way,” the governor continued. “Even as we face challenges in making this transition, it’s the right move for our communities and planet. Most importantly, it will leave Hawaiʻi a better place for our children and grandchildren.”
Hawaii has been pursuing an aggressive shift toward renewable energy. In 2014, the state pledged to get to 100% renewable energy by 2045, the first state to make a net zero pledge — while also making attempts to phase out fossil fuels and overhaul its utility structure. In 2020, Senate Bill 2629 in Hawaii banned the use of coal for power on the islands. The owners of AES Hawaii had already announced the plant’s retirement before the coal ban was passed, but coupled with other coal bans in states like Oregon and Illinois, the pledge sends a strong message about the state’s intentions.
Despite its abundant natural resources and potential for renewable energy projects, Hawaii’s energy mix has traditionally relied heavily on coal and oil; it uses more oil for electricity than any other state. In 2015, more than 67% of its electricity generation came from oil, while more than 15% came from coal. These fossil fuels are all imported from out of state, helping to make Hawaii’s electricity costs the highest in the country and nearly three times the national average.
Renewable energy has made significant inroads in recent years. According to the EIA, solar installations nearly doubled from 2015 to 2020, thanks in large part to an increase in rooftop panels. In 2021, according to a report from utility Hawaiian Electric, renewables provided more than half of all power for both Hawaii and Maui counties, the second- and third-most populous counties in the state.
But the state’s transition, including the closure of the AES plant in September, is not without some bumps. The plant’s owners, the AES Corporation, said that some of the renewable projects it had intended to use to replace the coal plants have not yet come online due to a variety of issues, including supply chain problems. The company said that it would be burning oil in the interim.
“We still have a few curves in the road to negotiate because the short-term challenge here is that as we close this coal plant in September, we don’t have as many renewable projects coming online immediately,” Sandra Larsen, the Market Business Leader for AES in Hawaii, told Hawaii Public Radio. “And so the reality is that residents here on Oʻahu are going to see higher costs in the short term.”
The struggles that Oahu may have replacing power from the retiring plant could foreshadow similar challenges in the rest of the state as it shifts to renewables.
“We’ve got a harder race to run because we’re taking six standalone grids, in the middle of the ocean, to a 100% renewable energy for electricity — and we’re starting from a high fossil fuel starting point,” Scott Glenn, the head of the Hawaii State Energy Office, told UtilityDive this month.