Solar Wind Bess

At a Crossroads, Hawaii’s Energy Future – II

Solar, Wind, Water, and Battery storage

Solar Person Graphic

When and if the day ever comes when the sun stops shining, the wind stops blowing, and all the rivers and waterfalls dry up — well, we will all be in serious trouble.  Until that time we humans have an inexhaustible supply of power from sources as natural to the planet as life itself.

Solar radiation, wind, ocean tidal currents and hydro in various forms are all natural and zero emissions energy sources available to power commerce, transportation, and buildings without the added costs of damaging climate and pollution by-products, supply-chain disruptions, and a pathway for humanity to forego future engagements in the form of energy-resource wars.

As to the question of Hawaii’s energy future, one thing is clear; the state’s two electric utilities are facing transitional decisions as to their energy options and solutions towards a statewide clean energy economy.

In terms of a statewide energy transformation, the twenty-two years remaining on the RPS utility clock can easily pass in the blink of an eye.  So far, the state’s two electricity utilities have performed reasonable well in meeting their RPS obligations, but closing the remaining 40% energy gap in order to fulfill those obligations will prove the most challenging.  This is especially true for Hawaiian Electric which serves over 95% of the state’s grid-dependent electricity customers, yet continues to be heavily invested in yesterday’s power production solutions and assets.

If Hawaiian Electric’s train wreak response to a long anticipated shut down of the former AES coal-fired power plant in Oahu is an example of allowing utilities to set the RPS agenda and bypass public accountability, it could prove to be a prescription for failure.

Hawaiian Electric may be unwilling or incapable or both to make the needed and timely transformation to clean energy, and if so, then a corrective process of legislative reforms is now needed — and this forthcoming 2023 state legislative session is a good time to begin that process.

Such legislative reforms of the state’s utilities should be driven by the public’s interest, not HE shareholders.  In Hawaiian Electric’s case, that will include acquiring or partnering with available, cost-efficient, and market proven clean energy replacements and new business partnerships. One obstacle HE faces is the replacement of their combustion-based dirty power production assets which continue to power the utility’s energy deliveries — and which they remain primarily dependent.

Hawaiian Electric, as with much of the rest of utility sector, now finds themselves in a world rapidly accelerating on the path in the completion of a journey to electrification which began 150 years ago.   The biggest energy change drivers today are; 1) addressing the over-arching state of climate impacts and,  2) the electrification of transportation.  More specifically ground transportation in the form of electric cars, trucks, commercial vehicles, and beyond that, in the near future limited-range all-electric passenger aircraft.

This is a truly a great time to be in the business of producing and selling all things tied to electricity and utilities like Hawaiian Electric already own a good share of this growing marketplace. However, these same historic and monopolistic positions utilities hold are increasingly threatened by many new forms of energy innovation, many increasingly independent of traditional grid power dependencies.

Hawaiian Electric is far from being locked out of the most effective clean energy alternatives.  Rather its executions on emerging grid energy and distributed power opportunities are seen as clean energy options, but so far have produced a mix bag of energy choices with varying ratepayers consequences. The company’s fulfillment of their state-regulated renewable energy mandates remains in question at the half point to 2045. This is a weakness in the both the state statues governing the RPS energy rules, and the utility’s execution of its obligations.

If its a matter of money, well then, there is no time like the present. Certainly the opportunity for Federal economic assistance has never been greater in the form of Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). But like most Federal programs, financial assistance can be fleeting when financial opportunities are ignored and become lost opportunities.


Microgrids will play an increasingly essential role in Hawaii’s 21st century power transformation

On the bright side, Hawaiian Electric announced last month that the company was engaged in no less than seven smaller scale solar projects, six will include battery storage.

Jhei Solar Porjects 2023 25

The projects are not of Hawaiian Electric’s energy design for the state, that credit goes to Nexamp in the fulfillment of the company’s self-described mission “…our seven new Nexamp projects in Hawai‘i will help the state move toward its decarbonization goals”.

The company’s business model is all about delivering lower cost clean energy solutions to lower income communities in what it calls to “… democratize clean energy and support U.S. energy independence.”  The Nexamp business model may also offer just exactly what utilities’ like Hawaiian Electric need, but historically have been slow to change and may now be struggling in the present energy landscape.

Partnering with companies like Nexamp could also be a win-win for both companies in what is leveraging Nexamp’s unique business model of incorporating Clean Energy Deployment, Customer Acquisition and on-going project Management.

“Solar power belongs everywhere. By decentralizing the energy system and offering our subscribers savings on their electricity costs, we’re building a future of energy that’s clean, simple, and accessible,”  Zaid Ashai, Nexamp CEO.

Addressing not only the state’s fossil fuel dependencies is tied to the challenges and growing threats to energy resiliency. It is an ever increasingly climate by-product of more frequent and extreme weather events.  Add in he arrival of mass market vehicle electrification and the corresponding charging demands, and altogether, the need for energy security at various points of consumption which independent of a fragile sole source the grid-powered infrastructure is a problem with many solutions.  The issue is accentuated for Hawaii’s energy consumers with island-specific power delivery challenges under all conditions.

Microgrid 1

Microgrids are generally defined or referred to as community or shared electricity generation and storage facility. They can be interdependent and connected to the grid for power sharing purposes or fully grid independent.

Microgrids represent a small network of electricity users linked to a local energy source which can be independent and interdependent or both with the utility’s centralized power grid. Microgrids can operate fully independent of the grid in an emergency and in extended utility power outages. Recent examples of the success of microgrids can be found after major storm events from California to Puerto Rico. 

The smallest and individual (residential) form of a microgrid can be found in the form of a rooftop solar with a battery back-up system installation; connected to and independent of the grid; either building specific or neighborhood scale.


Batteries are Better

Zero emissions and pollution free (solar and wind) energy sources are increasingly being coupled to battery storage systems containing highly intelligent and fully-automated power management systems to not only even-out power generation intermittency when connected to the grid, but also store excess power for use later and/or load balance power needs with the grid; in effect function as a firm power asset for a utility.

Battery capacity continues to increase, along with performance as prices drop.  The U.S. Energy Information Administration said that when it totaled the numbers for 2021, they showed that battery storage capacity grew by 4.5 GW, or 300%.  EIA cited the reasons for battery adoption and market share growth in the utility energy sector and attributed it to ...“declining cost for battery storage applications, favorable economics when deployed with renewable energy (predominantly wind and solar PV), and value-added additions in regional transmission organization (RTO) markets have helped drive the expansion of battery storage.”

The EIA expects 10 GW of battery storage capacity to come online in the US in 2023, with more than 60% of it paired with solar generation facilities.

Hawaiian Electric announced three days ago (Dec. 29th) its participation status and update in the AES Waikoloa energy project, Hawai‘i Island’s largest solar and battery storage project to date, and which is scheduled to begin full operations by April 2023, or earlier under a 25-year power purchase agreement with the utility.

Waikoloa Solar Farm 1The Waikoloa project broke ground in April 2021, with photovoltaic solar panels and battery storage system installations began in late 2021, with solar panels and batteries now fully installed and under ongoing testing of the facility. The AES Waikoloa Solar + Storage project is presently being tested up to 85% of its capacity,

The power production agreement for the clean (solar) energy plant will translate into a major economic and environmental benefit for both Hawaiian Electric and the Hawai‘i Island ratepayers as electricity produce will be delivered on-demand at 9 cents per kilowatt-hour, one of the lowest rates for energy in the entire state. 

When fully operational, the Waikoloa solar project will generate 42.2 megawatts (DC) of renewable energy supported by a 120 MWh containerized lithium-ion battery energy storage system.   The solar farm is located near Waikoloa Village.


What’s Missing in Today’s Energy Conversation?

In terms of Hawaii’s energy future that can be answered in a single word; opportunity.

Opportunity can be defined as many things.  In the case of Hawaii’s electricity future the missing element in todays’ island-by-island transformation may have less to do a utility’s grid priorities and more to do the advancing case for microgrids and rooftop solar, each coupled to on-site energy storage with onboard power management capabilities, independent and interactive with today’s utility’s power systems.

In the case of the Waikoloa solar project it represents for Hawaii County and the state, a major step forward in advancing the state’s clean energy possibilities from talk-to-reality. It is also a road less taken by Hawaiian Electric, better know for its misfires with the ill-fated Hu Honua biomass plant, and the PGV geothermal plant now still recovering the 2018 Kilauea eruption.  What the Waikoloa solar project does do is represent an important step forward for the Utility. It is also an example of market and technology-driven energy solutions now arriving in Hawaii, just in time in the face of an escalating global climate crisis.

At point into the foreseeable future unproven, currently impractical and uneconomical energy alternatives may deliver on their promised benefits, and they will be market-ready to serve as net energy solutions without polluting and climate side effects, e.g.; fusion, hydrogen, second generation nuclear power. But that time is decades-to-forever away from meaningful and cost effective energy substitutes that fully address the damaging effects of our present fossil fuel addiction.

The clean energy opportunity before us extends from one end of Hawaii to the other.  At the far end of Hawaii’s chain of island communities rely on Kauai Island Utility Cooperative (KIUC), which so far by example, has taken the lead towards in the adoption of battery storage (BESS) technology and in combination with utility scale solar installations.

One notable example is the recently added solar-battery farm of the Lāwai Solar and Energy Storage facility, now serving in its new role as solar peaker-plant plus-battery storage; delivering reliable and readily dispatchable firm energy (on-demand) to island residents.

Kauai’s cooperative-owned utility’s does not face the financial legacy investments and liabilities Hawaiian Electric has built up in over a century of operation and with its utility-owned combustion boiler power plant assets.  The differences between the state’s two electric utilities is more than just size and ownership, Hawaiian Electric operates in a multi-grid and multi-island service territory, unlike Kauai’s KIUC single island service territory, and can afford a more progressive management style, than the publicly-traded Hawaiian Electric.

Yet, will all its assets and access to financial markets, Hawaiian Electric continues to operate with an eye on preserving yesterday’s decades old boiler-based generation plants owned by HE, funded by ratepayers, and primarily fueled by oil and diesel to produce electricity.

These older and expensive plants operate serve as combustion-fueled energy plants with not only outdated operating technology, but with energy limitations and liabilities to match. They are further supported by regulatory guidelines equally outdated, which remain costly to ratepayers and enable the business-as-usual business practices accountable to the company’s shareholders, not HE ratepayers. These legacy boiler plants are simply too expensive to continue to be operated with ratepayer subsidies and with unaccounted costs to the state’s environment and public health.  In short, HE combustion-based powerplants, and their ongoing operation, represent obstacles to the state’s climate plans and goals, and needed energy reforms.

Solar Wind BessA popular, but ill-informed political argument during this past legislative session against utility-scale solar, wind with batteries serving in the role of firm energy is that they intermittent energy sources with batteries are limited to four (4) hours energy reserves. This statement has become the mantra of some ill-informed Hawaii state lawmakers.  The statement is half right, and all wrong at the same time. The plain truth is battery storage limitations in the form of firm energy applications are defined by scale and cost, not technology limitations. Like your cell phone or electric vehicle, the bigger the battery the greater the stored energy and the longer the charge.

This outdated battery argument is too often recalled to justify the need for firm energy in a form that can be only satisfied by burning one thing or another as fuel in order to justify the forever operation of the utility’s last century combustion-boiler power plants. Which continue to operate with the company assurance they will “eventually” stop burning imported fossil fuels.

A well-known Hawaii-based energy pundit correctly described the present role of solar energy plus battery storage in the state as “… Batteries blur the line but do not remove the line: batteries make variable power more firm (firmer) but not fully firm.”   The comment may be accurate at some previous moment in time, but no longer. On-demand firm power performance, especially at utility scale today finds  battery systems technology continuing to defy yesterday’s arguments against the technology that is rapidly transforming the grid through clean energy replacements.

Grid-delivered power over long distances is the state’s largest utility’s bread and butter profit center.  For that reason ahead of all others, the utility’s perspective continues to drive the state’s conversation on energy policy from the utility’s perspective – naturally.    It is more than a weakness of imagination or a purposeful ignorance of opportunity, it is intent on preserving energy policies designed to serve the primary interests of the state’s largest shareholder utility.

Battery Cost Reduction QuoteChange is in the Air

Once comfortable in their fossil fueled domain of business as usual, electric utilities increasingly face market and regulatory forces challenging their historic monopoly-driven energy business practices.  But a quickly evolving market pace based on  economic-electrification is now coupled (willingly or otherwise) to the national transformation of ground transportation off fossil fuels and to electrification.

These changes add more challenges to preserving the traditional utility’s use of  business-as usual arguments. When weighed against the profit opportunities for traditional electric utilities and others willing to think and act outside the box, energy market changes are inevitable.  These are macro changes in energy opportunities which are pushing aside past and increasingly obsolete power assumptions that combustion-based electricity production (which pollutes and emits GHG emissions) are a necessary part of the default energy matrix comprising today’s electrical grid.

Up until our recent past, power industry stakeholders saw the world of electricity production neatly roll-up into a package comprised mostly of fossil fuels, with nuclear and hydroelectric energy sources included for good measure. Just 15-20 years ago, it was assumed fossil fuels would have a forever role in generating power for the power’s sake.

Prior to that time, nuclear was held up as the future and be all energy source. Nuclear power’s history changed that assumption, as did the economics of the most expensive power option ever invented by humans which is tied to massive forever waste management obligations, and costly environmental and security implications.

When solar and wind energy generation options plus arrived on the scene they were viewed as showpieces to a clean energy future that may never be needed or realized. But as this article finds, even our friends at Hawaiian Electric may be seeing the (sun) light. The AES solar BESS project on the Big Island will most likely prove, even to the skeptics through direct operating evidence.  The good old days when no utility questions were asked or answered, these are times which have finally passed.

At the present rate technological and cost reduction advances,  battery technology is already viewed as an essential component of the grid energy matrix and increasingly rooftop solar systems.  In effect, today’s power assumptions are changing fast, and the state’s regulations which govern them are overdue for an update.


One Final thought, Let the sun shine in… 

In 2015 HECO joined mainland utilities in what proved to be a coordinated industry-wide campaign designed to kill the highly successful national transition to rooftop solar, fueled by net metering (NEM) rate allowances. Between 2012-16, Hawaii experienced it’s fastest economic growth in the state’s recent history. An economic renaissance completely disconnected from tourism; the solar boom years. Hawaii’s clean energy economy had arrived.  And along with it, good paying and diversified solar jobs throughout the four counties.

Hawaii Rooftop Solar InstallThe state’s largest power monopoly reasoned (to this day) took the popular utility view to this day that its customers who generate their own electricity are competitors not customers and that they represent a threat to profits when they operate in the role of power producer rather simply surrendering themselves to being fully indentured power consumers.

Across the power sector, utilities successfully lobbied their respective state PUC’s and  Federal gov’t energy friends that these pioneering solar customers were endangering the grid with their unscheduled and solar-powered contributions back to the grid.  The argument fell upon (then sympathetic) Hawaii PUC ears, and later proved to be the death knell of the most highly equitable ratepayer program designed to advance clean energy in the state. By the end 2016 Hawaii’s homegrown solar energy economy was in free fall.

Backup History1That was then, energy technology advances today, especially those coupled to commercialization have since delivered a range of intelligent battery management systems options to rooftop solar homeowners and businesses which did not exist just 4 years earlier.   This same battery storage tech also developed into utility-scale solutions from Hawaii Island-to-Kauai, and represent an ever increasing component in new utility deployments of renewable energy projects. And the role for battery options does not end there, but also as firm energy augmentation to the grid.

By 2019, with the introduction of Tesla’s Powerwall battery management system to the world ripped through utility arguments against rooftop solar.  Tesla Energy’s leadership also led to other manufactures offering similar home and commercial energy battery management storage products to augment rooftop solar installations. But this accomplishments were not limited to rooftop energy applications, but as utility-scale energy production and power management examples now ongoing online around the world.

Solar homeowners with battery management systems are today, in effect, functioning as their own scaled down power plants. This distributed version of utility firm power plants is powered by the sun, not the grid or fossil fuels. The technological arrival of home battery systems, those coupled with rooftop solar not only lower consumer’s energy bills (Hawaii being the highest in the country), but provided an equally important benefit: energy security aka resiliency.

There were other benefits as well for these power consumers turned energy producers.

Most power outages are generally thought of in terms of long term power outages. Get out the candles and flashlights, don’t open the refrigerator unless absolutely necessary, etc. Beyond the question of grid power reliability and resiliency, there are the hidden power consequences associated with grid delivered power in the form of hidden damage costs for consumers, the result of frequent short term utility outages. This type power outage can produce varying levels of power surges too often to be noticed and costly to ratepayers in terms of damaged equipment and components of customer appliances and electronics. Too often this type of subtle cause and effect electrical damage comes in the form of shortening the electronic life of your equipment and appliances, extremely difficult to track back to the cause or event.

Many people employ consumer power strips for protection from grid power surges. Power strips are little more than a multi-plug outlet. Even more sophisticated power protection equipment after one or more surge protection events fail in terms of future protection against power surges, generally accompanied by the loss and restoration of power by the utility. The events can also be the direct result of other utilities accessing the power lines for their own various purposes, and creating short term outages, and generally without notice to consumers..

Multiple power surges and short term grid power outages occur unnoticed but can easily be more damaging, as well inconvenient. Hawaii residents who have installed batteries at their homes and businesses find the satisfaction of a continuous and reliable power supply worth the investment with built-in power surge protection. One example is from a single home solar-battery management which typically provides embedded power surge protection by design. On Dec 19, 2022, as the power exhibit in the article demonstrates, a big island home owner recorded no less than six successive utility power interruptions, but notice no power changes within his home as the battery system covered all power drops, while protecting his electronics from possible and accompanying power surges.

The reluctant acknowledgement by utility executives of the role batteries now play in modern utility design and operation, regardless of their location or ownership, can be summed as a lost opportunity for all concerned. As long as ratepayers are ready and willing to bail them out, any real public accountability from your electric utility will remain elusive…

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