Mililani Solar Power Plant

Hawaii’s Energy Future Debated

Solar Person GraphicThe subject of “firm energy” is not often discussed in community circles concentrating on the state’s energy policy, but recently became a controversial hot topic and close call for some that came in the form of senate bills SB 2510 and SB 2511 which past the legislature, but were then vetoed by Governor Ige for good reasons.

The senate bills unwisely picked state energy replacement winners and losers  intended to ensure the statewide advancement of combustion-based “firm energy” options which pollute and contribute to greenhouse gas emissions; and were mandated as fossil fuel energy replacements. The bill’s also set energy mandates and subsidies never designed to be environmentally benign or climate helpful compared to viable solar, wind, and battery storage clean energy options, it was designed to advance a misguided political agenda.

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 for the moment, but will likely not apply for very much longer as the technological energy landscape rapidly changes, and along with long held assumptions.  For example, zero emissions (non-polluting solar and wind) energy sources are increasingly being coupled to battery storage systems containing highly intelligent power management systems. Battery capacity increases along performance, prices drop, and firmer energy options become firm, thus changing the energy landscape – and just in time to address an emerging global climate crisis.

Battery Cost Reduction QuoteOnce stagnate in the fossil fuel domain of business as usual, energy companies are increasingly facing market and regulatory forces seeking out energy technology and innovation solutions, fueled by massive investments in clean energy tech, and altogether are quickly moving past obsolete power assumptions and the conventional wisdom that combustion-based power sources (which pollute and emit GHG emissions) and a necessary part of the default energy matrix comprising today’s electrical grid.  So-called “’Firm Energy” has multiple layers of definition, in the case of Hawaii, the reference primarily refers to combustion-based fuels, e.g., fossil fuels, trees-to-trash and other combustible fuels designed to be burned and to create heat, and which in turn creates steam, that in turn spins turbines to generate electricity for the utility grid on demand.

Up until 15 years ago, it was assumed fossil fuels would have a forever role in generating power for the power. Prior to that time, nuclear was the future be all energy source, but history changed that assumption.  An exclusive club of experts and industry pundits saw the world of electricity production neatly roll-up into a package of comprised mostly of fossil fuels, with nuclear and hydroelectric energy sources rolled for good measure.

Distributed, Zero Emissions Energy, Firm and Firmer Are On their Way

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, spurred on at the time by net metering (NEM) rate allowances. Between 2012-16, Hawaii experience 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 utility-reasoned (and to this day) as do other power monopolies, that is, customers which generate their own power are a threat in their new role as power producers, rather than fully power-dependent customers.

The history lesson doesn’t stop there. The utilities successfully argued to their respective PUC, and with some merit, that these pioneering solar customers were endangering the grid with their unscheduled and solar-powered contributions back to the grid. The utility argument proved to be the death knell for the original, and highly equitable, original NEM ratepayer program that ended in Hawaii by 2016.  That was then, technology advances coupled to commercialization have since delivered a range of intelligent battery management systems available to rooftop solar owners which did not exist just 3 years earlier.   The same battery storage tech also developed as a utility-scale solution and now plays an ever increasing role in utility deployments of renewable energy options and as firm energy augmentation to the grid.

By 2019, with the introduction of Tesla’s Powerwall battery management system, the world of utility arguments against rooftop solar evaporated. Tesla’s leadership also led to other manufactures offering similar home and commercial energy battery management and storage products to augment rooftop solar installations, and optimized utility-scale energy production and management.  Solar homeowners with battery management systems were now, in effect, functioning as their own scaled down and distributed versions of utility firm power plants, but powered by 100% by sun, not fossil fuels.

The reluctant acknowledgement by HECO executives the role batteries now play in modern utility design and operation, regardless of their location or ownership, become publicly apparent as the utility desperately work to bail themselves out of a self-inflicted and last minute response plan the AES coal plant shut down.   HECO’s response was to enable, rather than obstructed, homeowner adoption of solar plus batteries and/or retro fitting batteries to existing solar installations in Oahu. The success of the program intended outcome on grid operations further enabled the utility to recently extend this program to its Maui customers.

PV / Wind plus and Storage technology advances are closing the gap towards a 100% firm energy reckoning, and at the rate technological and cost reduction advances, likely within just the next 5 years – well in advance the state’s goal of 100% renewable energy by 2045. In effect, today’s power assumptions are changing fast..

Utility Scale Firm Energy vs. Clean Power Options

The question recently floating on local blogs and social media between those in the community following all thing energy-related with state’s energy future, can be summed as …do we have 100% solar-wind plus storage and other clean renewable energy options ready to fully replace all of Hawaii dirty energy history and present, and what about Hawaii’s present firm-energy grid dependencies?

The short answer to both questions are that clean energy zero emissions, non-polluting energy replacements firm and on-demand power replacements are for the moment relegated to combustion-based and polluting energy sources, but clean energy replacements are close to fulfilling that goal, just not quite yet.

Does Hawaii need a complete clean energy replacement solution for firm energy generation depend on fossil fuels today, the answer is no, and there is time choose wisely and to deploy firm energy replacements which do not burn fuel or emit air pollutants and greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions.  There is certainly time to meet the 2045 RPS goals, and fully eliminate all combustion an dirty energy sources currently are part the states fragmented grid utility system.  The RPS renewable energy mandate was designed to be a transitional and transformational process, and we have 23 years left to complete that journey.

Firm and Firmer Zero Emissions Clean Power options coming in the next few years, as incremental performance improvements in both PV (solar) and batteries continue unabated and cost drops, which also applies to wind and hydro storage.

So what are the limitations? Electric grids are flexible enough to handle some of renewables’ intermittency – when they’re up to around 20 per cent of the market. Industry expert say that beyond “magic number” grid operators are likely to ‘curtail’ solar-wind suppliers to stop the grid becoming too unstable.  Hawaii is currently ranked 16th for solar installations by capacity, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, with 17.68% of its electricity needs being generated by solar.

Emerging hybrid projects Solar plus storage still represent a minority of overall solar projects, but too is changing fast, in fact, going forward, there are few solar projects without storage even being considered in Hawaii and on the mainland, mainly, from the utility perspective, solar power generation has become so inexpensive that a lot of portions of the 20th century designed electric grid simply aren’t able to absorb any more solar power.” Energy storage is key to managing higher levels of renewable penetration as we go forward with utility centric, and centralized power grid system – although it certainly doesn’t need to be that way.

Over the last few years, engineers have been racing to develop batteries with longer and longer durations, interacting with the grid from seconds to hours.

“The only thing that’s holding those resources back from becoming 100 per cent of our total electricity generation is the ability to store that energy and dispatch it as needed,” Matt Harper, co-founder and CCO of Invinity Energy Systems.  Harper’s firm is leading the movement to bottle sun and wind resources, to bridge the supply and demand gap when night falls and the turbines stand still.

Hawaii’s Energy Future is Here

Clearway Energy Group recently completed this year the construction and commercial operation of its Mililani Solar I plant on O’ahu — the island’s first utility-scale solar and battery storage power plant.

The 39 MW Mililani Solar Power Plant is paired with a 156 MWh battery storage system and includes over 123,000 photovoltaic panels, each measuring 6.5-feet tall and slightly more than three feet wide. The tracker-based solar power plant, located on 131 acres in Mililani Agricultural Park, will enhance grid reliability and provide grid services at a critical time with the decommissioning of the state’s last coal plant in September.

Mililani Solar Power PlantHawaii may have a long ways to go to close its statewide 50% plus renewable energy replacement gap, but we also have then time to do it right by optimizing advancing solar plus battery technology opportunities and certainly wind and storage as clean energy system replacements that will eventually scale to as full replacements for our firm and dirty energy system dependencies today.

Equally important, is the full implementation rooftop solar and storage options throughout the state, less as a boutique  energy business sector and more as statewide mission to augment present utility scale clean power deficiencies and escalating costs to ratepayers.

Today, we have the opportunity and necessity to increasingly move forward to distributed power architecture, which is resilient to climate and power security challenges, and a cost effective alternative to utility scale solutions which are long in implementation and higher in cost.

The statewide advancement of rooftop and community solar plus batteries at the points of consumption is equally important part of the solution. There will continue to be opportunistic and utility-led solutions, but they can also become a valuable partner to HECO and KIUC in achieving the statewide goal energy transformation to a clean and self-sufficient energy economy for Hawaii and its residents.

South Australia power problems meet Tesla’s 21st century power solutions

Tesla is most notable know for its advanced Electric Vehicles. Tesla’s clean energy division, less known, has been quickly and effectively advances clean energy solar and battery management solutions from individual home owners to commercial businesses. and for entire utilities for the last 8 years.

Recently the residents of South Australia (formally a coal power dependent region) experienced lots of power issues over the years, and which only got worse with the utility’s retirement of its aging infrastructure assets, while struggling to manage a the high penetration of renewable energy. The transition further destabilized energy markets due to an inconsistency of the utility’s power supply, more a business problem, than one associated with power and technology choices.

Several years ago Tesla first got involved in South Australia by supplying its large utility-scale a Powerpack system, what became known as the “Tesla Big Battery.”  While in the region during the launch of the big battery, Tesla CEO Elon Musk was interviewed and was presented with the significant hardship that Australia’s high electricity prices are putting on low-income families.  The unstable grid and high electricity costs resulted in some families having to decide between keeping the lights on or going hungry.

Musk was visibly emotionally affected by the issue and vowed that Tesla would “work harder” to help solve the problem.   He wasn’t kidding because a few months later Tesla announced that it reached a deal with the South Australian government to install solar arrays and Powerwalls on up to 50,000 homes – many of them homes of low-income families.

Over the last few years, Tesla has been deploying more Powerwalls to grow the virtual power plant, which provides grid services to reduce cost and backup power in case of a power outage. In return, the home battery packs are subsidized and reduce energy costs for the households.

In 2020, Tesla had 1,000 Powerwalls on the network, and they were authorized for a new phase to add another 3,000 batteries.

A year later, the company expanded the program by launching what it calls the “Tesla Energy Plan on the Tesla Virtual Power Plant,” which is basically a time of use energy plan specifically made for Powerwall owners in South Australia.

Last year, Tesla announced that it is expanding its Tesla Energy Plan and Tesla Virtual Power Plant to Victoria.

Now Tesla is announcing another expansion of its virtual power plant to other neighboring states and regions around South Australia and Victoria:

Australia’s largest Virtual Power Plant has expanded to New South Wales, South-East Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory with the Tesla Energy Plan.

Existing Tesla Powerwall owners or new buyers in those regions can now decide to opt into the VPP.  One of the main ways in which Tesla’s energy division is slowly becoming a global decentralized energy provider, which is one of the stated goals of Tesla Energy according to CEO Elon Musk.



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