Tesla Is Turning Kauai Into A Renewable Energy Paradise

This story originally appeared on Grist and is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

When people ask Luke Evslin why he decided to live off the grid, he starts with the time he almost died.

Evslin grew up on Kauai, a nub of a former volcano at the oldest end of the Hawaiian archipelago, but he was living on nearby Oahu at the time of the accident, working and competing in races with an outrigger canoe club.

The biggest race of the year is a daylong ocean crossing from the island of Moloka’i to Oahu’s Waikiki Beach, which can take between five and eight hours. Exhausted paddlers rotate out of the canoe during the race, jumping into the water to be scooped up by a waiting motorboat. During the first switch, Evslin was getting ready to heave himself into the canoe when the motorboat struck him.

The propellor sliced across his back in five places, severing muscle and bone along his spine and pelvis, each cut a potential death blow. His teammates pulled him out of the ocean and rushed him to shore. Judging from the looks on everyone’s faces, Evslin wasn’t sure he would survive the hour-long trip to land.

“I wasn’t scared to die,” he wrote a month later from his hospital bed, “but I was sad to die. I realized how much I love our beautiful world and everyone that is a part of it … and I was sad that I’d only just noticed.”

Soon after, still recovering from his wounds, “I made the terrible choice to read Walden Pond,” Evslin recalls. He came across these famous words from Henry David Thoreau: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Evslin began dreaming of a self-sufficient life, in touch with nature and free of the careless consumption of modern society. He convinced his then-fiancee, Sokchea, to move to a rainy acre on his native Kauai, where they built an off-grid yurt powered by six solar panels and a bank of batteries.

They planned to use only their own energy, eat what they grew, and eliminate their carbon footprint. Luke even planted a few coffee trees, imagining he would keep up his caffeine habit guilt-free.

“I had this grand plan of being an example for people,” he says, “showing how easy it was going to be.”

 He had good reason to think that. Bathed in Pacific sunlight year-round, Kauai has all the hallmarks of a renewable energy paradise. Others thought so, too. In 2008, the member-owned electricity cooperative set an ambitious goal to run the entire island on 50 percent renewable energy by 2023.

At the time, Kauai had no utility-scale solar at all. But by the final day of 2015, the island’s main power plant—a rusty sugar plantation-era diesel generator—shut down for the first time since firing up the 1960s. For a few hours in the middle of the afternoon, two large solar farms did the heavy lifting on the island of 65,000, and the diesel plant sat dormant.

It was a good omen. By the end of 2016, the utility was on track to hit its 50 percent renewable goal five years ahead of schedule.

This February, the co-op board voted to move the goalposts again: 70 percent renewable energy by 2030. It will probably clear that mark early, too.

But, as Evslin quickly learned, the path to a low-carbon future can be tougher than it seems. Even in Hawaii, the sun doesn’t always shine—and when it does, sometimes you end up with more power than you can use in the moment.

How to collect that solar energy, predict it, get it to the right places at the right time, save it up for a rainy day—those are the kind of challenges our massive, spread-out, and unevenly populated country faces as we make the switch to clean energy. It’s one of the reasons that Tesla is making a major investment on Kauai, hoping to get it right.

And it all comes down to a lesson that the Evslins learned the hard way: It’s not about getting off the grid. It’s about building a better one.

“I imagine that there will be a lot more failures than successes to report,” Luke Evslin wrote in the first post of a blog he started to document his life off the grid, on January 1, 2011. “But that’s the point of it.”

Evslin didn’t know just how much he would come to reconsider what counts as failure and what constitutes success. On a visit with the family this summer, I walk the property with Luke as he points out trees he had planted. He’s tailed by a handsome dog named Asher and a mismatched set of terrier mixes, Peanut and Pico. A calico cat appears and settles on the railing with a view of the yard, where ducks and wild chickens peck hopefully.

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