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Clean energy can help close ‘opportunity gap’

This year, my focus is on closing what many call “the opportunity gap.”

As families in Hawaii know all too well, many are working harder and getting by with less. One thing we can do to help address this concern is to build a stronger clean-energy economy. This is an opportunity for Hawaii to innovate and diversify our economy, which will help businesses in every corner of the state by lowering their energy costs.

We’ve become accustomed to paying some of the highest prices in the nation for electricity and gasoline, routinely paying rates that would cause outrage in most Mainland cities. Energy costs are a constant challenge for families, the military and businesses of all sizes. In 2011, we spent over $7.6 billion on energy statewide, which is equal to nearly 11 percent of our state’s economy, or about $5,500 per person. Imagine what $5,500 more a year could mean to a small business or working family.

The primary reason for these unsustainable and uncontrollable costs is that fossil fuels are priced on international markets. These markets don’t give a hoot about whether Hawaii families or businesses pay three times more for electricity than Mainland families and businesses. And, because the supply of fossil fuels is limited, the price of fossil fuels will go up as demand increases around the world.

That’s why we must make sustainable energy an affordable reality. With our high costs, abundant potential for renewables and desire to lead on renewables, Hawaii is truly the perfect test bed for technologies that will change how we generate and consume energy.

There are three things that I believe the federal government can do to give our entrepreneurs the room to innovate and develop commercially viable solutions to meet our challenges.

First, we need to double down on research and development. Partnerships between the federal government, private sector and academia have a proven track record of developing game-changing technologies.

I’ve recently visited the Pacific International Center for High Technology’s Energy Excelerator, an innovative new partnership that provides start-up funds for renewable-energy businesses in Hawaii and the Asia-Pacific region. Last year, the U.S. Navy invested $30 million in this program, which in turn helped to attract an additional $38 million in funding commitments from the private sector.

The military will continue to invest significant resources into energy sustainability research, including biofuels projects and demonstrations in Hawaii, because of the national security importance of decreasing our dependence on foreign oil. This year’s defense appropriations bill included $15.8 million for Department of Defense energy conservation projects at Camp Smith, Tripler Army Medical Center and Joint Base Pearl Harbor – Hickam. I had the opportunity to hear progress reports on energy research from military leaders in Hawaii while hosting U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who has taken over the late Sen. Daniel Inouye’s position as Defense Appropriations chair. Sen. Durbin was impressed by the innovation happening in Hawaii and understands the importance of continuing support for research and development in this area.

Second, we need to upgrade our electrical grid so that it is not a bottleneck to expanding the use of renewable energy. Our power grid still uses technologies that date back to Thomas Edison’s time. Modernizing our grid is an essential element of our clean-energy strategy, and quite literally the backbone of a clean-energy economy. Since Hawaii is one of the states with the highest usage of renewable energy, we are at the forefront of this problem.

Grid upgrades are expensive, but they are essential to lowering consumer costs. The federal government can help by providing loans, loan guarantees and other innovative financing to attract private capital and spur big investments into modernizing our electrical grid. I’m working on legislation that will create a financing mechanism to do just that.

Finally, we need to extend and build on incentives that will help to lower the cost of energy efficiency and renewable-energy upgrades for businesses and families. The state of Hawaii is doing good work on innovative financing programs that will help to achieve this goal. However, there’s more that can be done, and I’m also working on a bill that will help give states more resources to assist consumers with affording the clean-energy transition.

Hawaii and our nation’s military recognize the challenges we face due to high energy costs and the volatility of fossil fuels. We must continue to work together to realize the opportunity we have to lead the way to a clean-energy economy.

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