In a democracy, every thorny problem needs at least one levelheaded farmer to think things through. Richard Ha served on the same Geothermal Working Group as Pat, and he too is a believer in geothermal. His thinking on it is Island-based and practical, and in fact Pat and many others regard Ha as the voice and conscience of geothermal, a citizen who has punched through the boundary between today’s energy crisis and tomorrow’s potential.
Ha recently spoke about global petroleum supplies at a TED-style conference in Hilo—stating that humans are now using thirty billion barrels per year but new supplies have fallen to one-third of that amount, that the end of cheap oil is upon us, that we humans are obviously in an unsustainable situation. I assume he wore to the speech the same basic ensemble he was wearing on the day that I met him: shorts, polo shirt and rubber slippers. Ha’s one of the “rubber slipper people,” a phrase of honor he applies to the common folk of the Islands, the ones who will represent the ultimate success or failure of energy policy in Hawai‘i.
Ha runs a six-hundred-acre farm in Pepe‘ekeo, about ten miles north of Hilo. He started thinking about oil when his farmworkers came to him asking for pay advances to buy gas so that they could get to work. His own fuel costs—powering tractors, forklifts, eleven gigantic refrigerators—were just as severe. “I can’t raise my workers’ pay,” he says. “We’re all getting squeezed.”
To find a solution, he made a leap. He attended the Peak Oil Conference in Houston. In his shorts and rubber slippers. What he learned there made him lose sleep. But he’s been four times now and has learned to focus on solutions.
Ha’s farm, on former cane land, is lush and watered by three unfailing streams. He’s working to make it completely self-sustaining, experimenting with hydro-power, cascading fishponds and oil production via farm waste and algae. He serves on the Hawai‘i Clean Energy Initiative Steering Committee. Although he feels a great urgency about the global oil situation, “I’m very optimistic, at least for Hawai‘i—the Big Island for sure.
“We got all this wastefulness we can get away from,” he says. Thinking of the taro-based agriculture of his ancestors, he adds, “In Hawai‘i it’s within people’s memory that these Islands can be sustainable. That’s a huge benefit we have going for us.”