Marking five decades of environmental stewardship

by Sharon Higa | Nov. 30, 2021

Happy 50th Birthday to Hawaiian Electric’s Environmental Division! Established in November 1971 to mark the growing significance of environmental stewardship and the company’s efforts to minimize the impact of its facilities and operations, the Environmental Division diligently works to protect Hawaii’s unique environment through timely, innovative and cost-effect compliance programs as well as voluntary, proactive environmental initiatives.

Until I joined Hawaiian Electric, I knew little about what environmental scientists at a utility do, but color me impressed when I discovered their role is more than regulatory compliance and intrinsic to protecting and preserving Hawaii’s land, air, water and native species while ensuring safe and reliable electric service.

When it was first established in 1971, Hawaiian Electric’s Environmental Division had a primary function to perform studies and collect data required to comply with regulations. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had just been formed about a year earlier amid heightened public interest in the environment. Hawaiian Electric had always strived to meet Hawaii’s growing power demands with minimal impact on the environment and the new regulations only intensified efforts in this area.

That same year, the company’s annual report cover featured a 21-foot Boston Whaler offshore of the Kahe Power Plant where scuba divers hired by the company first began studying the effects of plant operations on nearshore marine life. In addition to testing the sea water that passed through the power plant as a coolant, Hawaiian Electric began studying the coral reefs and marine organisms.

Here’s a cool fact I learned: In 1976, a new crab species was discovered by Steve Coles, a zoologist and marine biologist in Environmental, who spotted the tiny crustacean during a routine study of animal life near Kahe Power Plant. Pseudocryptochirus kahe, smaller than a pencil eraser, was publicized to the scientific world after a feature ran in “Crustaceana.”

Hawaiian Electric’s freshly minted department also was sought to prepare and provide technical reports to the legislature and other government agencies as well as environmental impact reports, an important function that continues to present day.

Add air/water quality monitoring, environmental permits, spill prevention and emergency response plans, compliance training, standard operating procedures, (soil, water and fuel) sampling and laboratory analysis, contractor oversight, environmental audits, protected species program, greenhouse gas emissions analysis and even drone surveys to the ever-growing list of the division’s activities as environmental issues, policies and laws changed over the decades.

One of the Environmental Division’s significant work is to collect, calculate, report and forecast greenhouse gas emissions to support Hawaiian Electric’s Climate Change Action Plan. As we track the company’s progress to decarbonize, the data is shared in our annual corporate sustainability report and HEI’s ESG or environmental, social and governance reports.

For more than 25 years, Hawaiian Electric’s Environmental Division led an annual volunteer beach cleanup with more than 100 employees (and families) collecting and bagging trash at Kahe Beach Park as part of the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup. In recent years, other volunteer efforts include the Hui Manu-o-Ku citizen science project to help document and support conservation of the white tern, the official bird of Honolulu, and stream cleanups. I even joined them for invasive species removal at Kanewai Springs and native tree plantings at Palehua and Ulupo Nui. These are among the Environmental Division’s volunteer initiatives to improve air and water quality in communities, restore green spaces and valuable watersheds, and protect native species and their critical habitats.

Today, there are more than two dozen environmental professionals on staff, including scientists, chemists, a marine biologist and a wildlife biologist who are led by Karin Kimura, promoted to director in 2019 and one of several female leaders in the division’s history. Although few on the team were born in the early 1970s when the Environmental Division first began, all have inherited a legacy of environmental excellence that will continue into future generations.

Sharon Higa is a senior communications consultant at Hawaiian Electric Company.

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