Fostering a more productive discussion around solar and ag land use

By Ulupono Initiative

Hawaii has ambitious sustainability goals, not the least of which are doubling local food production by 2030 and producing 100% of the state’s electricity with renewable energy by 2045.

However, when framed as having to choose one goal over the other, the resulting “this vs. that” discussion becomes unproductive. According to a recent analysis by impact investing firm Ulupono Initiative, the development of renewable energy, specifically solar photovoltaics (PV), and protecting Hawaii’s agricultural land do not have to be at odds with each other.

To better understand the impact on agricultural lands when adding more renewable energy onto Oahu’s electric system, Ulupono Initiative worked with Dr. Matthias Fripp, associate professor of electrical engineering at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, to conduct an independent analysis utilizing an electricity system planning model called SWITCH (Solar and Wind Energy Integrated with Transmission and Conventional Sources). The purpose was to evaluate how different land-use assumptions would affect land availability, total electric generation costs, and the overall design of the electric system on Oahu.

Summarized in Ulupono’s recent white paper, SWITCHing the paradigm, the analysis offers a starting point to continue a more productive collective inquiry into the best choices for Hawaii’s communities. In the end, it’s a choice between various scenarios in which the two goals can not only coexist but, at times, have a symbiotic relationship that allows us to achieve these ambitious goals simultaneously.

Specific findings from this SWITCH analysis reveal:

  • If no further actions are taken to protect Class B and C agricultural lands, Oahu is likely to lose 50% of Class B and 15-20% of Class C agricultural lands to solar development.
  • If more restrictive land-use limits for Class B and C agricultural lands are enforced, this choice will likely require an earlier transition to a renewable energy future that could include resources such as, offshore wind and biofuels, that are presently more costly than available renewable energy technologies.
  • If solar PV is developed on higher-sloped lands, regardless of the land-use scenario limit applied, it will result in a lower-cost resource plan, despite the increase in individual solar project development costs.
  • The electricity production cost difference between the Unrestricted Use and Current Use scenarios is 1.1 cents per kWh at <15% slope. At <20% slope, the difference is only 0.6 cents per kWh.
  • If solar PV is developed on higher-sloped lands, most of the lower-sloped (flatter) Class B and C agricultural lands can be protected and may result in a lower overall cost for ratepayers.

Read the white paper online or download the paper and analysis spreadsheets in PDF format.

A mission-driven venture of The Omidyar Group, Ulupono Initiative was founded in 2009 to improve the quality of life for the people of Hawaii by working toward sustainable solutions that support and promote locally produced food, renewable energy, clean transportation, and better management of freshwater and waste. For more information, visit