There is a monumental political and cultural uprising happening in Hawaii at this very moment. While this particular issue is focused on a telescope (more on that below), it has really clear indications for other types of development in the future, including renewables. Solar companies, wind companies, and other renewable industry people would do well to learn from what’s happening on the mountain. There are big lessons to be learned here.
A Brief Look at Mauna Kea
If you’ve missed the news coming from the islands from the past month, here’s the summary: Mauna Kea, a mountain of deep cultural and religious importance to the Hawaiian people, is located in such a position that makes it a good choice for a new telescope. There are many telescopes on the mountain currently, and this one would be the biggest; it’s known as the Thirty Meter Telescope, or TMT.
When Hawaii Governor David Ige announced on June 20 that TMT construction would go forward, there was immediate backlash. First there were hundreds, then thousands, of people on the mountain to protect this important place, in a peaceful protest that continues to this day. The police and National Guard have been sent in, there have been arrests of kupuna (elders), and there was a state of emergency declared by Gov. Ige (this was called off on July 30). There have been protests on the mountain previously, yet when the TMT was cleared for construction, there was an immediate and passionate response that seems to sum up the past 50 years of mismanagement.
I have no doubt that the cultural implications of this protest/protection will have far reaching consequences for all the islands – and beyond. And yet there is so much more.
I see this being of deep importance to the renewable energy industry. We see uprisings of indigenous cultures and nations fighting back against the colonial (imperialist) powers that so often displace, dismiss, and disenfranchise the indigenous, the brown, the poor, for the sake of development, growth, or income. These fights are long overdue.
Though this current movement in Hawaii is about a telescope, it could also be a wind farm or a solar array. I think Mauna Kea, while it is a super important movement itself, needs to serve as a reminder that companies around the world need to do their homework: engage with local communities, make efforts to learn about those that have a claim to the land, and include the local region as part of the conversation to build a better future for all of us, not just for some of us. Industry needs to be better at listening to listen to the people.
Building for Renewable World that’s BETTER
As a reader here, I can guess that you also wish for us to build for a more renewable world built on solar, batteries, EVs, and wind. Yet as we do so, we need to ensure that we’re building a green future that is just and viable for all, a future that is inclusive of and respectful towards nations, cultures, and religions that might view the world, and its progress, differently.
Two years ago I interviewed Professor Shalanda Baker, formerly of University of Hawaii, about energy justice – how we can bring those most at risk and left out into the conversation about the future. She said that when the renewable development movement really got traction here in Hawaii, it was focused on the technical – and often this is still the case. The story is often focused on how many gigawatts of power, a certain number of turbines, and x amount of energy offset. As she suggested in our interview, and as I suggest now, she encouraged developers to ask, ‘What about the people?’
Mexico’s commitment to renewable energy in the wake of Paris brought in lots of investment, but also resistance from local communities: “Many of these big renewable energy projects face substantial opposition from local indigenous and peasant communities, who accuse the companies funding the projects of failing to consult them in negotiations over land use . [The] communities say these megaprojects threaten their ways of life and human rights in much the same fashion as traditional extractive megaprojects, with the electricity routed to far-off urban centers while locals see little benefit,” writes Ethan Bien on MongaBay. He also mentions that a wind project was stopped in Oaxaca, and that resistance has also popped up across the Yucatan.
Rahhika Shah says it well in her article on Stanford Social Innovation Review: “Renewables companies and their investors now face a stark choice: either gain the cooperation of communities affected, or indulge in human rights abuse, and accept the accompanying repression of legitimate protest and resistance it generates.
What does Future Built on Energy Justice Look Like?
Including everyone in the conversation isn’t something that most businesses are accustomed to doing, and yet it has to be the way forward. Yes, bringing everyone to the table means it takes longer, and costs more money, and may bring in divisiveness. And yet what it could yield can also be productive, beneficial, and aligned.
A positive outcome looks like the Tosepan cooperative, an indigenous-led group that is working to install solar and untie itself from the Mexican grid. Bien explains, “The cooperative’s pursuit of energy sovereignty has been two-pronged, focused as much on conservation as on developing locally generated renewable energy.”
In the Amazon, solar is keeping remote tribal communities building decentralized solar microgrids as an alternative to Brazil’s focus on hydropower.
Another way forward is happening in Canada, where 20% of the energy projects are Indigenous-led, according to Lumos Energy president Chris Henderson (although it hasn’t always been that way). There is an active movement towards indigenous-led renewable energy projects, of which 150 are underway (see more projects underway from Indigenous Clean Energy).
I have lots of hope for a truly renewable future – a future built with walkable cities, solar and wind energy, fully electrified fleets and vehicles, and so much more – I imagine many of our readers also project a similar future. Mauna Kea is indicative of an indigenous-led future, and companies must take heed of what’s happening in the islands, and imagine that it was a wind farm or solar array (we already know people will fight an oil pipeline).
We need to better understand why there might be resistance to top-down models of development and industry. Good companies that are building wind and solar, and want a more renewable future, need to pay attention the native communities, and learn from those that are historical and current stewards of the land so that we can build a better future together.
Resources for Further Reading:
- What the Mauna Kea protection means for Hawaiians
- Divest. Invest. Protect
- Indigenous Clean Energy
- What does development mean if we don’t have the support of the community?
- Indigenous People’s Major Group for Sustainable Development