Contemporary energy systems are deficient in meeting energy justice objectives for many communities in Hawaiʻi. This is especially true for remote and marginalized communities, such as the predominantly kanaka maoli (Native Hawaiian) community of Molokaʻi. On the island of Molokaʻi, an energy cooperative was formed in 2020 to advance energy sovereignty for its residents. To counter the traditional Western colonial methods of assessing energy projects, the Cooperative with the assistance of community and university partners analyzed, deconstructed, and reconstructed the Feminist Energy Systems framework to develop an evaluation tool that prioritizes Indigenous and place-based knowledge. The evaluation tool provides a real-world example of how energy planning practitioners can develop place-based and culturally relevant frameworks that support decolonial efforts and Indigenous sovereignty. This paper discusses the Ho’ahu Energy Cooperative’s development of an evaluation tool that addresses its need for a way to assess energy projects based on the Indigenous Hawaiian values of aloha ʻāina, kuleana, and pono. Using Indigenous principles to customize Bell’s, Daggett’s, and Labuski’s (2020) Feminist Energy Systems framework, the final evaluation tool incorporates place-based values and feminist approaches into the Cooperative’s energy planning processes, which allows the Cooperative to articulate the costs and benefits of an energy project based on what is important to them, to their broader community, and to outside stakeholders. This evaluation tool facilitates a more holistic approach to the economic value of energy projects, builds community capacity for energy project evaluation, and centers cultural values in the assessment of the project. The development of this tool serves as an example of the pursuit of energy sovereignty by an Indigenous community and furthers feminist energy systems theory through the incorporation of an Indigenous place-based component.
Disclosure Statement: The authors did not receive any funding for this research.
Moloka‘i is one of Hawaiʻi’s smallest and most rural inhabited islands, with a population of approximately 7,300 people living in small communities, homesteads, and farms on an island that is 38 miles (61 km) long and 10 miles (16 km) wide. Over 60 percent of the population are kānaka maoli (Native Hawaiian) and typically practice a reciprocal subsistence lifestyle as a continuation of their cultural identity described in the Kumulipo.1 The Moloka‘i residents who are not kānaka maoli also are taught the indigenous values of aloha ʻāina (love of the land), kuleana (responsibility), and pono (equity/balance/righteousness).
The Molokaʻi energy system is characterized by persistently high electricity costs; exclusive, top-down decision-making practices; and a historical lack of incorporating cultural values into formal planning processes. Molokaʻi’s electric rates are among the highest in the state and country, largely due to the heavy reliance on imported diesel fuel oil and an aging grid infrastructure. In 2022, Molokaʻi residents paid as high as 64 cents per kilowatt-hour, more than four times the US average electricity rate.2 High energy costs translate to higher costs for food, water, communications/internet, and many other goods and services. The high costs and price volatility of electric service create a stressed and uncertain environment for all energy users on Molokaʻi. Residents, businesses, government facilities, and schools are all impacted, especially by the cost of air conditioning needed to cool indoor environments in their subtropical climate.3 For many families, monthly utility bills consume 10–30 percent of their monthly income (Williams and Noordhoek 2014).
Top-down, multilayered decision-making has contributed to the Molokaʻi community’s general lack of trust toward energy planning processes. Energy policy decision-making authority is divided between six key groups: (1) the Hawaiian Electric Company (HECO), which is the private utility company that provides electricity services to 95 percent of the state’s 1.4 million residents on the islands of Oʻahu, Maui, Molokaʻi, Lanai, and Hawaiʻi; (2) the Hawaiʻi Public Utilities Commission, which is Hawaiʻi’s regulatory body overseeing HECO’s procurement process for getting renewable energy projects online as quickly as possible; (3) Maui County Council in Molokaʻi, which is one of three inhabited islands in Maui County4; (4) Hawaiʻi’s Governor; (5) Hawaiʻi State Energy Office; and (6) Hawaiʻi State Representatives. Remote from the State and County seat, Molokaʻi has very limited municipal and state services on island, resulting in major discrepancies between the decisions made off island and practical and well-fitting solutions for Molokaʻi.
Despite the island community’s historical disenfranchisement, Molokaʻi has extensive experience in community organizing in the planning context. The Molokaʻi community has halted various projects, such as military bombing on the island of Kahoʻolawe (McGregor-Alegado 1980), the development of Molokaʻi Ranch (Minerbi 2011), and the construction of the Interisland Wind and Undersea Cable Project (Bryant 2011). The Inter-island Wind Project was controversial because of its proposed construction of wind turbines and undersea cables that would exclusively send the 400 megawatts of energy produced to the neighboring island of Oahu, thereby not providing any immediate benefit to the Molokaʻi community. Furthermore, the development threatened the Indigenous communities’ resources and ways of life. The planning process for this project, as with others, demonstrated a lack of understanding of the Indigenous communities’ concerns and priorities. A grassroots nonprofit organization, Sustʻāinable Molokaʻi, was created out of these community concerns, and the organization released a comprehensive Molokaʻi Energy Assessment in 2014.5 In the report, Sust‘āinable Molokaʻi asserts that it supports “an open, bottom up community dialogue and planning process that allows residents to decide on the best path for our community.” The report discusses Molokaʻi’s current energy context, its potential for energy independence and carbon neutrality, and how its energy goals align with cultural and community values. This assessment is an example of the community’s self-determination efforts that continue to present day.
Molokaʻi’s most recent community-led efforts toward implementing energy justice reflect a long legacy of Indigenous activism and take a proactive approach by forming the Molokaʻi Clean Energy Hui and Hoʻāhu Energy Cooperative (“Cooperative”) Molokaʻi in 2020.6 Both community-led groups were formed by many years of energy advocacy from its founding members and have an aligned vision for energy sovereignty on Molokaʻi. Their shared goal for holistic community-led energy planning continues to empower the community to challenge an outdated energy planning process and make space for invaluable conversations around aloha ʻāina, kuleana, and pono, ultimately leading to this initiative to create an evaluation tool that is more reflective of the Molokaʻi community. Both organizations promote community-led decision-making and the need to develop competency and capacity for energy decolonization and self-governance.
The Cooperative at its onset acknowledged how the current energy system’s metrics are not holistic in nature and often based on quantifiable costs, with very little to no value placed on community or environmental benefits. The Cooperative thus expressed a need for its own holistic framework to evaluate potential renewable energy projects based on place-based and Indigenous values. The Cooperative decided to develop its own framework for decision-making. This would be a more holistic tool than the current way renewable energy projects are evaluated through the utility’s procurement process. This tool should ultimately uncover the holistic impact of a project on the well-being of the island community, including local employment, electricity cost, decision-making power, land use, educational opportunities, and project ownership, among others. Furthermore, this framework could include both quantitative and qualitative factors such as monetary benefits and environmental, cultural, and spiritual resources and intangible benefits such as capacity building and resilience. This holistic framework could also assist the Cooperative in telling its story to the broader Molokaʻi community in a transparent way, which could encourage more community participation. Energy sovereignty and pono (righteous, balanced)7 resource management is very important to the community, and this is an opportunity to do those things. Lastly, the framework’s ability to tell the Cooperative’s story could help bring in partnerships with external organizations. If the community is clear in what they want and do not want, potential partners can have a sense of security around project proposals.
Participatory action research (PAR) was used to guide the development of the evaluation tool. PAR is a research approach in which academics, planners, and community members come together to examine a problematic situation and to use research to change it for the better. Furthermore, PAR empowers community members to be engaged as cocollaborators in the research process (Silva et al. 2014). Student researchers from the University of Hawaiʻi acknowledged to the Cooperative their positionality as outsiders of the community, as they were not kānaka Maoli and were operating in their research roles as university students. Although some community members were initially hesitant to work with outsiders because of historical occurrences of knowledge extraction that outside entities committed toward the Molokaʻi community, the Cooperative strove to create an “ethical space” where varied and even contrasting worldviews could meet through authenticity and deep human-to-human dialogue (Ermine 2007). To the Molokaʻi community, trust consists of a respectful, reciprocal, and honest relationship over time (Figure 1). This research commenced in 2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic, which prevented the research team from traveling to Molokaʻi to meet the Cooperative members in person. Virtual meetings were held over the span of several months, and regular communication was made via telephone and e-mail between meetings. In 2022 and 2023 when the pandemic was less severe, research team members visited Cooperative members in their homes and in community gatherings. The development of a strong relationship with the Cooperative was integral to the development of an evaluation tool.
Figure 1. Project Timeline
The first phase of this work, titled “Developing Relationships,” was predicated on the need to familiarize project partners with one another. This phase is principally characterized by two engagements. The first engagement was an introductory meeting during which the community partners had the opportunity to informally interview the research team about their backgrounds, motivations, and intentions. The second engagement was a work scoping discussion during which the community partners and the research team identified a mutual area of interest and agreed on shared expectations for the work ahead. At this time, the commitment was made to develop a usable evaluation tool to help assess the alignment between proposed renewable energy projects with community values and priorities. The university researchers acknowledged to the Cooperative that they were not experts in Molokaʻi’s energy systems and relied on the Cooperative members’ expertise. This spirit of humility helped build trust between the researchers and the Cooperative. The researchers assessed that they had developed a strong relationship with the Cooperative based on the quality of communication and candidness of the discussions between the two groups.
Once there was a clear understanding that the research team, the Cooperative board, and participating members from the broader Molokaʻi community had a shared sense of trust and respect for one another as well as a vision for the anticipated collaboration, the second phase, titled “Foundational Learning,” began. This phase involved a dual process of research and collective discussion. The review of academic literature and relevant energy planning documentation was paralleled with knowledge-sharing discussions between project partners. In the initial research period, this phase involved the regular attendance and engagement of the research team at the Cooperative’s community meetings—which, during March and April of 2021, were once a week. Although joint learning between project partners would be ongoing, the frequency of this type of engagement decreased to once a month by May of 2021.
Each round of the third phase, titled “Iterative Design,” was characterized by a single engagement that involved the research team presenting a new draft of the evaluation tool to the community partners. These presentations described how the community’s input along with the research team’s design inspirations were integrated into the current version of the evaluation tool. The community partners would then provide a critique on what aspects of the evaluation tool were failing or succeeding. Following this, the community partners would provide additional feedback and guidance on how the next version of the tool might improve. This iterative design process occurred twice during the initial research period and once during the ongoing research period, for a total of three iterations. Each engagement was conducted virtually, lasted 30 to 60 minutes, and was largely unstructured. Meetings were held with clear, singular objectives and primarily designed for open, organic discussion. This style of engagement was the pre-established methodology used by the Cooperative.
A lesson learned from this project that could be useful to planners was the importance of trust building in the planning process. Trust is considered to be a critical component to create a safe environment for the articulation of cultural values (Umemoto 2001). The Cooperative fostered a sense of trust among its members and the broader community, which allowed for candid conversations and ultimately led to the design of an evaluation tool in which the community could feel a sense of pride and ownership. Furthermore, as the community had historically little trust in the energy systems and decision-makers to protect the community’s best interests (Akutagawa et al. 2012), building trust was an important factor in the community’s own planning processes. Planners seeking to partner with communities can help build trust through developing competence of the community’s cultural values. As Umemoto (2001) writes, “Through verbal and nonverbal gestures, planners can set a tone or atmosphere that can encourage or discourage such sharing.” For “outsider” planners seeking to work with Indigenous communities, skills such as deep listening, learning about the community’s values and history, and showing humility are some ways to build trust, which takes time.
This project was novel in creating a tool that was informed by feminist, Indigenous, decolonial, and place-based practices that enhances planning of renewable energy systems in marginalized communities. To understand the lens from which the Moloka‘i community interacts, feminist and decolonial theory and methods were used. Both feminist and decolonial theory examines and critiques the role of power and how it shapes society. A theoretical framework titled Feminist Energy Systems (Bell, Daggett, and Labuski 2020) was analyzed, deconstructed, reconstructed with an Indigenous lens, and ultimately operationalized for this research project. Decolonial narratives, particularly specific to the Hawai‘i and kanaka maoli context, were reviewed to assess the ways in which Molokaʻiʻs Indigenous worldview interacts with Hawaiʻi’s colonial and neoliberal structures (Winter et al. 2018; Pascua et al. 2017; Vaughan 2014; Akutagawa et al. 2012; Bryant 2011; McGregor-Alegado 1980).
Both feminist and decolonial methodology conduct research in ways that challenge the top–down approach of traditional research methods. Furthermore, activist and participatory practices challenge academic norms by redistributing power between the researcher and the researched within the creation and dissemination of knowledge. D’Ignazio and Klein (2020) assert that even data used in research is neither neutral nor objective, and a feminist approach requires an ethical and critical analysis of what kind of data is used and how it is used.
Feminist methodology also values multiple forms of knowledge, such as truth found through emotions or art, which has often been left out of traditional research methods (D’Ignazio and Klein 2020). This feminist method aligns with Indigenous methods, as many Indigenous cultures highly regard the metaphysical realm as a rich source of knowledge, including dreams, visions, and lived experiences (Million 2009). Feminist theory and methodology contain symbiotic elements with Indigenous values and methods. As Rohrer (2016) asserts, “Indigenous studies asks that we question the academic privileging of published, ‘expert,’ ‘scholarly’ (usually nonnative) texts over stories, oral histories, songs, practices, and so forth.” Feminist energy systems incorporate such an approach, requiring a “multi-pronged, collective approach to knowledge” (Bell, Daggett, and Labuski 2020).
Energy systems literature included technical papers related to smart grids (Succar and Cavanagh 2012), renewable energy policy (Fripp 2016), and energy economics (Rubin and Davidson 2001). Although the traditional utility model appears to be dominant in the energy literature, different models such as energy cooperatives are increasingly being analyzed. McNish (2019) offers that an energy cooperative structure could benefit Hawaiʻi in the manner of reorganizing the traditional utility incentive structures and providing ownership opportunities for community members. Another benefit of energy cooperatives is that they often follow democratic processes that allow members to vote in board member elections, participate in policymaking, and hold the company accountable to remaining aligned with community values and priorities.
Data collection included locating Molokaʻi-specific energy data through several websites and reports, such as the Maui County Data Book, the Molokaʻi Community Plan, Hawaiian Electric reports, and the Environmental Protection Agency reports. One of the major challenges in attempting to find baseline data was the lack of Molokaʻi-specific data that was readily available. Not all of the data for Molokaʻi related to the dashboard was found. It appears that some data, such as average fuel costs per individual, was done on a state level, and sources did not allow for deeper analysis. Furthermore, other data sources focused on the county level.
Data collection also included a review of state- and international-level frameworks. In searching for more place-based models to inform the design of the scorecard, the Aloha+ Challenge became an important framework that would influence the scorecard’s design. The Aloha+ Challenge was established in 2014 as a statewide public–private initiative to achieve Hawaiʻi’s social, economic, and environmental goals by 2030. The Aloha+ Challenge identified six priority goals and local metrics that reflect the global United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. The Aloha+ Challenge features an open-data platform dashboard that is meant to support accountability and transparency in these goals.
As the Aloha+ Challenge was designed in Hawaiʻi, the University researchers initially believed that the dashboard would resonate with the community. However, the researchers found that although the Aloha+ Challenge Dashboard was helpful in better understanding the State of Hawaiʻi’s priorities, regarding the Molokaʻi context, it had its limitations. During Cooperative meeting discussions, it was evident that members of the Cooperative viewed the Aloha+ framework as another top–down Western methodology that was being forced on the community. The Cooperative brought attention to areas in each sector that had gaps in how the community viewed their own conditions or demonstrated their specific needs (Table 1). For example, in the natural resources sector, part of the Aloha+ Dashboard metrics involve the number of endangered species that are protected. However, in Molokaʻi’s case, there are other species that may not be considered endangered or threatened that are valuable to the community and are worth protecting, preserving, and propagating. Thus, monitoring these species would be important as the community considers the impacts of renewable energy projects on these habitats. Other questions around a more diverse economy and increased resilience also bring up issues of how best to quantify these goals and if the current ways of measuring such areas are relevant to this community.
Table 1. Cooperative’s Concerns Regarding Aloha+ Challenge Indicators
Aloha+ Challenge Sector
Aloha+ Challenge Indicators
SMART AND SUSTAINABLE COMMUNITIES
SOLID WASTE REDUCTION
GREEN WORKFORCE AND EDUCATION
LOCAL FOOD PRODUCTION
The Cooperative shared that among the challenges that community members face when working to engage seriously on energy issues on their island was the lack of resources and know-how to thoroughly determine the quality of proposed energy projects. The determination of quality is complicated by the fact that projects are judged by two sets of values rooted in two distinct worldviews: the Western worldview, which tends to emphasize individualism, and the Hawaiian worldview, which tends to emphasize social and biophilic relationships. (Gould et al. 2019). The Place-Based Feminist Energy Systems (PBFES) framework establishes an equity-centered platform from which critical discussion can be held that embraces the complexity, intersectionality, and multiple truths that result from the attempted consolidation of the two worldviews. Importantly, the PBFES framework also seamlessly accommodates the use of local and Indigenous knowledge. Developing a tool with this foundation was therefore instrumental for capturing a diverse suite of evaluation metrics.
Traditional energy systems have led to critical oversights that have contributed to energy injustices and the degradation of the relationship between communities (electricity consumers) and electric utilities and government agencies (Williams and Noordhoek 2014). In contrast, PBFES encourages community-based and participatory practices because these approaches have been linked to decisions that are more robust and legitimate, actions that are less controversial and therefore have less risk of stalling or triggering litigation, and solutions that are more comprehensive in addressing the real-world issues faced by community stakeholders (Kretzmann and McKnight 1993; McGookin 2021; Lake 2014; Graham 2003; Sweet 2018; Adler 2013).
The feminist energy systems framework, as defined by Bell, Daggett, and Labuski (2020), employs a multidimensional lens through which an energy system should be analyzed to achieve the concurrent goals of advancing energy equity, building community capacity and resilience, and sustainably decarbonizing the energy sector. The PBFES dimensions (see Table 2)—(1) political, (2) economic, (3) socioecological, (4) technological, and (5) place-based—express an understanding that energy systems exist within a multifaceted environment of societal issues. From the production, sale, distribution, and consumption of energy and energy-related assets, energy systems directly and indirectly impact all aspects of modern governance, business, and private life. Many of these impacts have been identified to be severely damaging to the economic, social, and environmental well-being of marginalized communities around the world. Originally, the framework was composed of only the initial four dimensions. The fifth dimension, place-based, was added to explicitly capture factors unique to a place’s culture, history, and community perspectives. This comprehensive approach attempts to address root-cause issues in a holistic manner with the understanding no perfect solution exists and energy system improvements will be made incrementally.
Table 2. Dimensions of a PBFES
Democratic, decolonial, decentralized decision-making, pluralist, publicly owned
Prioritizes human and more-than-human well-being and biodiversity over profit, refuses the growth imperative, committed to community economies, regenerative and pink-collar jobs
Relational, attuned to the violence of energy production and engaged in efforts to mitigate or compensate that violence, committed to building a culture of care
Resilience-oriented, transparent, community-directed and collaborative, accessible, heterogeneous
Informed by cultural values; local, Indigenous, and ancestral knowledge; cross-sectorial; asset-based
The evaluation tool is based on Molokaʻi community member input and the Cooperative’s priority concerns and values. The collaborative cocreation of the tool using PAR involved three rounds of tool development, revision, and refinement. The resulting version of the evaluation tool (Table 3) consists of 42 prompts that span the five dimensions of the PBFES framework.
The main design objective of the tool is to capture and unveil salient information about a proposed energy project with the aim of deepening the community’s understanding of project-related benefits and impacts. Although many of the prompts address key questions that would naturally arise during typical Q&A discussions between project developers and impacted communities, other prompts challenge the status quo of what types of information energy developers traditionally feel comfortable sharing. By design, this tool aims to communicate a desire from impacted communities to see energy developers be transparent, accountable, and responsive to public inquiry and input. More subtly, this tool seeks to reveal the underlying attitude energy developers have toward working collaboratively with the community. It is not the intention of the tool to require developers to exhaustively respond to all 42 prompts; however, the quantity and quality of responses will indicate to the community the energy developer’s commitment to fostering a respectful relationship built on shared values. This tool will also enable the Cooperative to hold their own projects accountable in being transparent and communicate how many aspects of their projects go beyond profit generation.
Table 3. Third Iteration of the Evaluation Tool
Molokai Community Energy Project Evaluation Tool
Clarification on Evaluation Tool Prompts
Renewable Energy Project Proposal Title:
Include the name of the proposer, the type of project, and the location of project site.
General Project Specifications:
General Project Specification
Refers to the nameplate capacity (in MW) and capacity factor for the project.
Refers to the ESS specs, expressed as power / energy (MW / MWh) or inverter size and duration (MW / h).
% Renewable Energy Penetration Contribution
Refers to the percent this project contributes to achieving the state's (and/or island's) 100% RPS goal.
Project Bid Proposal Date
As described in the RFP, what is the date the project proposal must be submitted?
Project Bid Approval Date
As described in the RFP, what is the date the project proposal was approved?
Project Construction Date
What is the estimated time for the project to commence construction (ex. Spring 2024 or TBD)?
Project Operationalization Date
What is the estimated time for the project to become operationalized (ex. No later than Summer 2025)?
Refers to the physcial footprint of the project as well as the overall project site size (in acres).
Proposer Entity Type
Examples include C corporations, non-profit co-operatives, LLCs, and municipal/state entities.
Proposer's Organizational Chart (include key contact people & decision-makers).
An organizational chart of the proposer entity provides insight into development team's composition and institutional management systems.
Proposer's Community Outreach and Engagement Strategy.
Refers to a high-level overview of the community outreach and engagement plan. Highlighting the plans major objectives, methods, and outcomes.
Project Ownership Model (include expected changes of ownership).
Refers to how project ownership is intended to be handled. Will it be held by the proposer, sold to an offtaker, transferred to the community, or does the proposer not have authorty over the project's ownership?
List partner agencies and contracted support firms with a description of their roles.
Refers to the development partners, funders, contracting partners, and other collaborators - listed along with their project contributions (ex. G70 - planning and permiting; Revamp - engineering; etc.).
List challenges that this project faces that collaboration with the impacted community could help resolve.
Refers to the fact that impacted communities are experts and specialists of their region. Collaborating with the impacted community will provide insights that may resolve otherwise challenging development hurtles.
What is the developer's target profit margins for the project?
Refers to estimated ROI and/or IRR values.
What is the economic value added to the local and regional community?
Refers to the estimated value generated from the project that circulates through the local economy (ex. Expenditures for local labor, materials, and services).
What is the valuation of the community benefits from this project?
Refers to the estimated value of a community benefits agreement and/or expected monthly bill savings for project subscribers (in the case of a CBRE project).
What is the valuation of environmental impacts from this project?
Refers to the estimated value to investigate envrionmental impacts and the expenditure on associated mitigation strategies (ex. Wildlife monitoring, revegetation, support for environmental stewardship).
Description of the proposer's commitment to green jobs and care infrastructure.
Refers to the proposer's investment in jobs that focus on sustainability, education, the environment, and health. Refers to the proposer's investment in childcare and paid medical, parental, and bereavement leave.
Estimate # of local jobs (temporary & continuous).
A breakdown of estimated local job creation associated with the project, from proposal conception to operationalization.
Description of potential revenue generation for the local community.
Refers to the financial opportunities for direct revenue generation by residents and businesses local to the project site, if applicable.
Who is conducting the Environmental Assessment / Environmental Impact Statement?
Name of the firm contracted to conduct the EA and/or EIS for this project.
What projects has that firm worked for in the past?
A brief list of past projects that help to establish the contracted firm's performance record.
How and when will the EA / EIS be made available to the public?
Directs interested parties on where and when to look for published EA/EIS documentation.
Who is conducting the Cultural Impact Statement?
Name of the firm contracted to conduct the CIS for this project.
What projects has that firm worked for in the past?
A brief list of past projects that help to establish the contracted firm's performance record.
How and when will the CIS be made available to the public?
Directs interested parties on where and when to look for publised CIS documentation.
Contact information of the proposer's liasons and key resource people along with positionality statements.
Name and contact into of the proposer's principle liasons with the community as well as a brief bio that describes their personal and their business' relationship with the impacted community and place.
Describe the proposed land-use changes?
A description of project site's land conditions and principal use prior and post project implementation and decommisioning.
Description of the project's engineering design thinking and rational.
A description of design decision metrics. (Ex. Were decisions based off cost, quality, sourcing, fair trade vendors, aesthetic, material characteristics, others? How were design decision metrics weighted?)
Description of project's technical contributions to the local and regional electrical grid.
A description of what the project was designed to do or not do. What are the project's key functionalities? (Ex. Provide the grid with firm power? To provide decentralized DER and grid hardening to improved resiliency?)
Description of project's technological innovations in effieciency, automation, and data democratization.
A description of how the project is utilizing smart grid principles and advancing system-wide sustainability, resiliency, and equity goals.
Description of project's after-life plans concerning the energy resource assets.
A description of how project assets will be managed after the project is decommissioned. What are the discarding, recycling, and repurposing options available?
Description of benefits design processes.
A description of the what the benefits from this project are, who the benefits were designed for, and how were the benefits decided upon.
Description of project alignment with community-based and regional plans concerning energy, land use, and economic development.
A description of how this project contributes toward those plans' goals and objectives. Suggested plans to refer to include relevant master plans, action plans, disaster preparedness plans, and economic development plans.
Description of how project increases community resilience.
A description of how the project supports non-energy community priorities. (Ex. Stimulates the local economy through it's subscriber-ownership model. Reinforces disaster preparedness capacbilities.)
Describe why the project site is ideal for energy generation rather than an alternative land use.
A description of special geographic, economic, sociological characteristics of the project site that supports energy development over other forms of development (i.e. housing, agriculture, etc.) or non-development.
Sythesize the feedback received from the community thus far concerning the project.
If applicable, what are the prevailing opinions, hopes, concerns, quesitons, and potential opposition that has been expressed by the community?
What are the expected impacts to land access by the community?
A description of the impact the project will have on indigenous rightsholders' and the general public's access to land in and around the project site.
Pre-CIS, what actions has the proposer taken to understand the cultural context and impacts of this project?
Refers to any early actions taken to better understand the indigenous and local community culture, priorities, and worldview.
What is the impact on natural and cultural resources?
Refers to any early actions taken to better understand the indigenous and local community culture, priorities, and worldview.
Prompts 1 through 2.8 establish several foundational specifications of the proposed energy project, such as the project’s type (e.g., solar farm, wind farm), scale, and timeline. Depending on when in the development process this evaluation is being conducted, responses to these questions may not be precise. Whenever precise answers are not available, proposers are encouraged to provide reasonable estimates or ranges that serve as substitutes for specific values.
Prompts 3.1 through 3.6 were inspired by the PBFES vision that sociopolitical regimes must evolve alongside energy regimes to be increasingly community codesigned, owned, and managed. The fossil fuel industry, along with other energy development actors, have a long and troubling history of unsustainable extraction of natural resources, unjust exploitation of marginalized peoples, and concentrating wealth and decision-making power within the electric utilities’ regulated natural monopoly business structure. Too often these political structures undercut the provision of electricity—a resource increasingly considered to be a human right—via profit-driven agendas. This market-based approach to energy development continues with the deployment of renewable energy technologies. Unfortunately, this has meant many renewable energy projects have received similar criticism to their fossil fuel–burning counterparts for threatening the health, economies, socioecological zones, and cultural values of frontline communities.
The evaluation tool prompts in this section seek to shed light on various decision-makers and power-holders associated with the project. Clean energy systems are not by default equitable, just, or democratic systems. Such systems are not only self-evidently valuable but are also arguably necessary for achieving rapid and sustainable decarbonization goals. The prompts also invite a discussion on energy democracy, in which democratic control over electric power systems promotes community control over energy generation and distribution (van Veelen 2018). Alignment between sustainable development goals with human rights goals may be improved through the refinement of systems of energy governance and the delegation of power to specialists - the leaders and political entrepreneurs of marginalized communities (Buechler et al. 2020).
Prompts 4.1 through 4.7 ask questions that proposers will find difficult or awkward to answer, but responses here remain critical. The challenge in answering these questions comes in part from market volatility and uncertainty but also from enduring, yet obsolete, business philosophies that perceive financial transparency as a threat to shareholder supremacy. Through answering these questions, the proposer will indicate what their priorities are—whether that is working toward profit maximization, toward the well-being of human and nonhuman stakeholders, or somewhere in between.
The economic perspective posited here includes the resistance of using the Gross Domestic Product as a measure of a community’s well-being because “levels of inequality, poverty, health, pollution, land degradation, and educational attainment are not reflected in these calculations” (Bell, Daggett, and Labuski 2020, 5). Furthermore, the traditional energy labor system that promotes a “mono-economy” such as coal plants is renounced, as declining jobs in these areas can leave people in these communities even more vulnerable. Other economic models such as a universal basic income, reorganizing work schedules, and valuing “pink collar jobs” such as caregiving, teaching, and art that in the patriarchal energy system have been underappreciated and considered “free labor,” should be explored. This tool seeks to advance a dynamic and ongoing discussion with communities and project proposers on the economic value of prioritizing justice, dignity, artisanship, and meaningful interactions with each other.
Prompts 5.1 through 5.8 begin to address the common issue of communities not trusting energy developers to conduct satisfactory environmental and cultural impact assessments. Impact statements are often referred to as “checking a box”—meaning to invest the minimal amount of time and effort to fulfill legal obligations—rather than a sincere effort to determine a project’s fitness for a given location or to establish robust impact mitigation solutions. Although responses to this section of the tool may equip the community with some means to hold developers accountable to their commitment to investigate impacts, it is also an opportunity to strengthen the dialog between communities and developers on the important topic of natural and cultural resource management.
The record of cases in which both fossil-fuel–based and renewable-based energy system infrastructure (i.e., power plants, pipelines, and power lines) impose a disproportionate burden on marginalized communities speaks to a problem that is not technological but rather systemic to how energy decisions are planned and made. By improving the transparency and the accountability of key energy-sector actors, this tool aims to mitigate unintended environmental injustices and equip decision-makers with a more informed perspective on the energy challenges their communities face. The call for a more holistic process for energy development is complemented by a trend of community-based management plans emphasizing unique community values, spirituality, and cultural practices (Pascua et al. 2017). This is especially the case in Hawaiʻi, where Indigenous (along with other diverse cultural) values often conflict with Western management systems.
Prompts 6.1 through 6.4 rebuff the notion that electric power systems are inanimate, amoral, and politically neutral by calling attention to how technologies are financed, designed, manufactured, and implemented. Improved transparency at all levels is needed, including how involved technologies are sourced and what externalities may be associated with that technology. Industrial ecologists who argue that sustainable systems cannot exist at a level smaller than the global level would note that the cheap cost of some clean technologies are attributable to the hazardous, oppressive, and unregulated sourcing and manufacturing practices of countries in the Global South. Especially in land constrained regions like Hawaiʻi, thoughtful decisions need to be made about waste management as well.
In addition to the ethical component to technological decision-making, it should also be acknowledged that energy solutions should go beyond simply meeting the needs of the bulk energy market. Principally, energy project proposals should clearly demonstrate actions toward addressing energy poverty, improvements toward ensuring critical electricity services, and innovations to energy efficiency, automation, and data sharing.
Although not an original dimension to the framework outlined by Bell, Daggett, and Labuski (2020), prompts 7.1 through 7.7 assert that place-based and Indigenous values are critical for developing holistic processes and sustainable solutions. A place-based approach leverages the specific circumstances of a place, its local people, and surrounding systems and resources to design appropriate and effective planning outcomes. Beyond the specific political, economic, socioecological, and technological factors of a place, there is also an often overlooked or underutilized cultural knowledge resource that can serve to address nuanced and intersectional issues that exist at the nexus of energy, water, food, public health, education, disaster preparedness, and more (Burton and Cutter 2008; Pascua et al. 2017; Odom et al. 2019). As such, responses to this section will demonstrate efforts made by the proposer toward how these factors were (or will be) handled and integrated into the project.
There is a growing precedence for the role of place-based methodologies in energy development planning. The cultural identity of a place has been found to have an important role on energy development and whether or not a community is in favor of or against a particular energy project (van Veelen and Haggett 2017). Misalignment between local community perspectives and the ambitions of energy sector leaders often creates conflict that either stifles progress toward renewable energy goals or leaves local communities feeling abused, marginalized, and exploited. The tool aims to help resolve this issue by encouraging the use of place-based considerations that empower communities toward the ownership of energy processes and/or assets (Baxamusa 2008; van Veelen 2018). In this way, energy solutions are not constrained to solving simply regional energy issues but also broader community issues—particularly in the realms of disaster preparedness, economic development, and environmental management (Burton and Cutter 2008; Pascua et al. 2017).
One of the main takeaways from this project is that if planners hope to receive support from an Indigenous community for an energy project, the project and process must reflect the community’s cultural values. While planning literature has demonstrated that cultural values should serve as a foundation for the development of plans (Umemoto 2001), in planning practice, this has not always been the case (Fast and Mabee 2015). Cultural values are defined as “values that are shared by a group or community, or are given legitimacy through a socially accepted way of assigning value” (Stephenson 2008). In Molokaʻi, the cultural values of aloha ʻāina, kuleana, and pono are central to all land use decisions, and how the community defines these values is also very contextual and distinct. Bryant (2011), when discussing the failed Molokaʻi Wind project, states that, “The use and exploitation of Hawai'i's renewable resources, while necessary to achieve energy self-sufficiency, must be balanced carefully against the need to preserve and protect kanaka maoli lands, resources, and cultural values.” This underscores the importance that cultural values have in the context of renewable energy deployment, regardless of how ambitious and globally altruistic renewable energy and carbon neutrality goals might be. For kānaka maoli, environmental justice goes beyond the fair treatment of people with regard to environmental matters.9 Environmental justice “is about spiritual and economic connections to the environment, cultural resurrection, and political nationalism and preventing degradation to kanaka maoli communal, economic, and spiritual interests” ( ).
The Aloha+ Challenge exercise was an enlightening example of the role that cultural values play in garnering community support. When the Cooperative reviewed the Aloha+ Challenge, it concluded that the framework did not showcase the importance of culture and how culture permeates all aspects of an energy system. To the Cooperative, the framework lacked cultural and spiritual dimensions, assets, and metrics that were important to the community, and as such, the gaps of the framework were articulated (as seen in Table 1). The gaps that were acknowledged reflected the community’s own cultural values and metrics. In sum, a decision-making framework, even if successfully implemented elsewhere, may not be the right framework for a given community. It can be inappropriate, even offensive, to assume that a community will accept a plan, framework, or metrics that were designed without its participation right off the bat.
While the Cooperative was able to highlight the gaps in existing frameworks from a cultural perspective, better articulation of how cultural values drive data and metrics was needed. Through viewing the energy system using the FES lens, re-examining what a community defines as “success” or improved well-being means redefining what type of data is relevant in community decision-making. Through multiple Cooperative meetings, examples of culturally driven metrics and data were captured (Table 4). Conversations on how the community might be able to collect this type of data were also significant, as they signaled the growing interest and capacity of the Cooperative to conduct its own studies or partner with other organizations for this kind of work. While not all of these metrics and data were applied to the evaluation tool, the Cooperative plans to use these for future planning and assessment purposes.
Table 4. Examples of Culturally Driven Metrics and Data
Culturally Driven Metrics
Culturally Driven Data
Traditional energy planning in Molokaʻi has been characterized by Western and colonial practices that have resulted in the Molokaʻi community’s persistent experience of marginalization. The predominantly Indigenous community has experienced cultural and environmental degradation due to a continued reliance on imported fossil fuels, resulting in high energy burdens in a majority of low-income households. Nevertheless, the community has taken great strides to empower itself through education and assert its desire for sovereignty in the energy space through strong partnerships and the creation of its own energy cooperative, building from decades of grassroots community organizing.
The energy planning space has not historically been amenable to the formulation of projects that achieve community-driven, cross-sectoral goals. As a response, Molokaʻi’s energy cooperative has taken it upon itself to develop its own evaluation tool that assesses the value of a proposed project based on the community’s deeply held values and long-term goals. The tool, while continuously in development, assists the community in asking difficult questions and balancing tradeoffs. Meanwhile, potential partner organizations hoping to work with the Cooperative can find this tool helpful in understanding the aspects of the project that the community finds important. The tool has the potential to facilitate an improved planning process for the Cooperative and help build trust with potential partner organizations through the tool’s appeal for transparency and accountability.
A transdisciplinary approach is needed to broaden siloed, discipline-specific worldviews (Waitt 2018). In addition to bridging social sciences with natural sciences, PBFES highlights the significance of analyzing situated knowledge and Indigenous epistemologies. Through these broadened considerations, renewable energy projects may be better understood as they exist at the nexus of intersecting systems of local economies, natural resource management, public and ecological health, cultural identity and practices, social equity, and technological progress.
The coauthors would like to acknowledge Ryan Neville, who was part of the original research team and cowrote the first version of this paper, and Ali Andrews from Shake Collaborative, who was instrumental in making this research project possible.
This research was conducted as a participatory action research project, in which the Cooperative directed the goals of the research, while the paper’s authors (Selarque, Kilolu, and Chow) assisted the Cooperative in achieving its research goals. As such, this paper’s authors include the Cooperative as a whole.
Layla Kilolu, Sebastien Selarque, and Leilani Chow (Kanaka Maoli))