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How Hawaii is Transitioning From Oil Dependence to Solar Energy
By Bentham Paulos
From an energy perspective, Hawaii is unique. Located in the middle of the Pacific, the Aloha State runs on imported oil. But its island environment—from sunny days to active volcanoes—also holds the keys to a future powered by renewable energy.
Oil powers Hawaii’s cars, trucks, planes and boats, and generates 72 percent of the state’s electricity as well. Importing all that oil costs $4.5 billion each year. That’s $3,200 for every man, woman, and child—every cent of it leaving the state to pay for oil. And thanks to its dependence on oil, Hawaii has by far the highest electricity prices in the U.S., averaging 34 cents per kilowatt-hour—three times the U.S. average.
But this has also been a catalyst for change, and Hawaii’s energy picture is changing fast. Hawaii is a living laboratory for best practices in the integration of renewable energy into the smart grid of the future.
“We are seeing game-changing advances in technology and increasing customer demand for control over their energy usage,” said PUC Commissioner Lorraine Akiba. “It is transforming the electric industry here in Hawaii and all over the country.”
Hawaii first set renewable energy goals in 2001, later making them mandatory and expanding them. Revisions made in 2009 require utilities to meet get 70 percent of their supply from clean energy by 2030, with 40 percent from renewable energy and 30 percent from energy efficiency. The state has also offered tax incentives for solar and wind since 1976.
These policies, combined with the declining cost of renewables, have triggered explosive growth in recent years. In 2013 alone, customers of Hawaiian Electric (HECO) installed over 129 megawatts of solar panels on Oahu, Maui and the Big Island, boosting the total to 300 megawatts from over 40,000 systems.
To put that in perspective, HECO has only 2,400 megawatts of firm power capacity. Fully 10 percent of the utility's customers on Oahu have solar. With this growth, Hawaii is now a national leader in solar power per capita.
Such a density of solar is causing problems for the distribution grid. A distribution circuit may feed hundreds of customers in a neighborhood, stepping the power down from the higher voltage transmission system. This is traditionally a one-way trip, from power plant to customer. But there are times now in Hawaii when solar systems on a distribution circuit will produce more than the power demand on that circuit, causing the surplus power to flow backward into the higher-voltage system.
According to GTM Research, 40 percent of the circuits on Oahu are at or near full capacity. HECO has begun requiring that studies and grid upgrades be paid for by customers installing solar on circuits that may max out their circuits. This has caused a backlog for new permits, frustrating solar companies and slowing down installations.
Help may be on the way, however. Legislation in 2012 gave the state PUC the authority to create the Hawaii Electricity Reliability Authority (HERA), a third-party contractor that would “monitor, enforce and analyze” reliability standards and interconnection agreements. While the utility will continue to control the grid, HERA will “take a greater role in the oversight” of distributed generation.
The development is welcomed by state energy director Mark Glick. HERA “will allow for an objective third party to make the assessments of what can be safely and reliably entered into the grid,” he said. But the PUC must still determine “to what extent and whether it’s an oversight or direct role.”
While the PUC rules are expected soon, pressure from the solar industry is pushing the issue. The Grid Modernization Act, HB 1943, would guarantee that “any person, business, or entity can make a safe and reliable interconnection on the Hawaii electric system in a timely manner and for a reasonable cost” regardless of location. Grid upgrade costs would be shared across the system.
The bill has drawn opposition from HECO and the state consumer advocate over the costs to non-solar customers, while the PUC expressed “strong concerns.”
“Distributed generation, as currently priced, lowers costs for the few and increases costs for the many,” testified Scott Seu of Hawaiian Electric.
The bill sponsor is the chair of the House Energy and Environment committee, Rep. Chris Lee. His committee passed the bill in late January in a 7-3 vote.
“I think it’s in the utility's own interest to make changes themselves to their business model—to be a 21st century distributor of electricity so they can continue to thrive—but they’re going to have to adapt in the face of new technology,” said Lee at the hearing. “If they’re not going to move there themselves, we have to help make sure they do, because we need a viable utility with a sound business model.”
The bill is slated for the House Committee on Finance tomorrow and faced the Consumer Protection and Commerce committee on Feb. 12.
Replacing oil with renewable energy is serious business. Citizens invested $471 million in solar alone in 2012, supporting 71 solar companies that employ 1,600 people. Solar accounts for 26 percent of all construction activity in the state.
“We really see this as being a huge, important addendum to our economic activity and growth in the future,” said Glick. “We’re highly dependent on tourism and defense. We see energy being a much bigger, growing sector. Our renewable energy agenda really pushes us in that direction, basically a home-grown industry.”
Being so dependent on oil, Hawaii’s economy is at the mercy of global geopolitical events. When oil prices shot up in 2008, “over $1 billion left our economy, with no value added whatsoever,” said Glick.
In addition to solar, Hawaii is blessed with every form of renewable energy. Wind, geothermal, and solid waste together provide 10 percent of power, with more from biomass and hydro. The Big Island is already 40 percent renewable.
The island of Kauai is especially aggressive on solar. The national Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA) recently named David Bissell, CEO of Kauai Island Utility Cooperative (KIUC), as the Utility CEO of the Year. Bissell has helped Kauai become a “laboratory for innovation in engineering and utility finance” in pursuing utility-scale solar projects.
The community-owned utility has a goal of 50 percent renewable power by 2023. It has been actively adapting its system to work with more renewables and less oil. Kauai has wireless smart meters for nearly all of its 33,000 customers, online customer usage data, and utility-scale battery systems to provide more reliability and smooth out fluctuations. These batteries have prevented blackouts when oil-fired generators have tripped offline.
To reach its renewables goals, the utility is building more small hydro systems, a biomass power plant, and interconnecting more solar—including over 600 small solar systems in the past two years and 30 megawatts from three big projects now under construction. When these projects are done in 2014, Kauai will meet half its daytime power demand from the sun. With so much solar coming, the utility is thinking of “offering rates to encourage customers to use electricity during the day, when power is being produced more cheaply,” such as for charging electric cars.
Growing pressure for change
Kauai is in the vanguard of a global trend toward the greater use of solar power, as documented in America’s Power Plan, a recent report from the Energy Foundation. Regions like Germany, Spain and California are seeing disruptions to their traditional electricity markets, regulations and business models. As solar becomes competitive with grid power, more customers are producing their own, eroding utility profits. And an abundance of daytime solar power is driving down wholesale prices and shifting peak demand to early evening, changing the operations and revenues of generators.
The report calls for reforms to regulations and business practices to facilitate the transition to more renewables, such as by making sure electricity rates reflect the costs and benefits of solar, cover the cost of maintaining the grid and encourage efficiency.
Hawaiian Electric is pursuing more renewables, but the Public Utility Commission is also forcing it to innovate with new utility business models that can adapt to changing times. In a recent case, the PUC issued an extraordinary statement that “the HECO Companies appear to lack movement to a sustainable business model to address technological advancements and increasing customer expectations.”
“Electric customers are increasingly frustrated because of high electric rates,” the commissioners wrote. “The commission affirms its commitment and support of Hawaii's clean energy transformation. However, clean energy in and of itself is not the singular goal but rather should be viewed as one strategy to serve the public interest, along with sound business practices centered on customer value.”
“The utility of the future is one that will use innovative technology to provide cost-effective service and value to customers,” added Commissioner Akiba. “That means renewables, storage, electric vehicles, and demand-side management tools. It doesn’t have to be a threat to utilities, if they would just embrace it.”
In the long run, the state energy office says Hawaii has the potential to produce more than 140 percent of current power demand from renewables. Geothermal energy on the volcanically active Big Island would be the backbone, supplemented by wind, solar and biomass plants across all the islands. To integrate the system, Hawaii has begun planning for an inter-island undersea power cable, the first to link the islands.
Existing oil-fired power plants will be maintained to ensure reliability, but with renewables rising, they will use dramatically less oil. Hawaii is finding ways to turn off the tap, tune in to its natural resources, and turn on the lights with renewable power.
Visit EcoWatch’s RENEWABLES page for more related news on this topic.
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Tensions are continuing to rise in Canada over a controversial pipeline project as protesters enter their 12th day blockading railways, demonstrating on streets and highways, and paralyzing the nation's rail system
Colorado River Has Lost 1.5 Billion Tons of Water to the Climate Crisis, 'Severe Water Shortages' May Follow
California is headed toward drought conditions as February, typically the state's wettest month, passes without a drop of rain. The lack of rainfall could lead to early fire conditions. With no rain predicted for the next week, it looks as if this month will be only the second time in 170 years that San Francisco has not had a drop of rain in February, according to The Weather Channel.
The last time San Francisco did not record a drop of rain in February was in 1864 as the Civil War raged.
"This hasn't happened in 150 years or more," said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability to The Guardian. "There have even been a couple [of] wildfires – which is definitely not something you typically hear about in the middle of winter."
While the Pacific Northwest has flooded from heavy rains, the southern part of the West Coast has seen one storm after another pass by. Last week, the U.S. Drought Monitor said more Californians are in drought conditions than at any time during 2019, as The Weather Channel reported.
The dry winter has included areas that have seen devastating fires recently, including Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. If the dry conditions continue, those areas will once again have dangerously high fire conditions, according to The Mercury News.
"Given what we've seen so far this year and the forecast for the next few weeks, I do think it's pretty likely we'll end up in some degree of drought by this summer," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported.
Another alarming sign of an impending drought is the decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. The National Weather Service posted to Twitter a side-by-side comparison of snowpack from February 2019 and from this year, illustrating the puny snowpack this year. The snow accumulated in the Sierra Nevadas provides water to roughly 30 percent of the state, according to NBC Los Angeles.
Right now, the snowpack is at 53 percent of its normal volume after two warm and dry months to start the year. It is a remarkable decline, considering that the snowpack started 2020 at 90 percent of its historical average, as The Guardian reported.
"Those numbers are going to continue to go down," said Swain. "I would guess that the 1 March number is going to be less than 50 percent."
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center forecast that the drier-than-average conditions may last through April.
NOAA said Northern California will continue deeper into drought through the end of April, citing that the "persistent high pressure over the North Pacific Ocean is expected to continue, diverting storm systems to the north and south and away from California and parts of the Southwest," as The Weather Channel reported.
As the climate crisis escalates and the world continues to heat up, California should expect to see water drawn out of its ecosystem, making the state warmer and drier. Increased heat will lead to further loss of snow, both as less falls and as more of it melts quickly, according to The Guardian.
"We aren't going to necessarily see less rain, it's just that that rain goes less far. That's a future where the flood risk extends, with bigger wetter storms in a warming world," said Swain, as The Guardian reported.
The Guardian noted that while California's reservoirs are currently near capacity, the more immediate impact of the warm, dry winter will be how it raises the fire danger as trees and grasslands dry out.
"The plants and the forests don't benefit from the water storage reservoirs," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported. "If conditions remain very dry heading into summer, the landscape and vegetation is definitely going to feel it this year. From a wildfire perspective, the dry years do tend to be the bad fire years, especially in Northern California."
- Is California heading for another drought? - Los Angeles Times ›
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- California Fires Now Rage All Year as Drought Creates Tinderbox ... ›
- California weather stays dry as rain and snow come up short | The ... ›
- California Emerged From Drought and Is Still Catching Fire - The ... ›
A warm day in winter used to be a rare and uplifting relief.
Now such days are routine reminders of climate change – all the more foreboding when they coincide with news stories about unprecedented wildfires, record-breaking "rain bombs," or the accelerated melting of polar ice sheets.
Where, then, can one turn for hope in these dark months of the year?