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Proposed energy rate hike sparks controversy  

While everyone seems to want more sources of renewable energy on Maui, residents who spoke at a recent Public Utilities Commission hearing weren’t too thrilled with the idea of having to help pay for it.

Hawaiian Electric Co. and its subsidiaries, including Maui Electric Co., have asked the commission to approve an across-the-board monthly rate increase for each Maui County customer of about $1.80 a month for renewable energy infrastructure.

But several of those who spoke at Maui Waena Intermediate School on Wednesday told commissioners that the electric company is a monopoly with enough money to pay for projects that benefit the islands.

MECO President Ed Reinhardt explained that this increase is necessary for the company to build the renewable energy infrastructure it needs to attract private investors and to build transmission lines and substations to sites that are always remote.

“So if HECO selects remote locations why should we have to pick up the tab,” said Rob Parsons, former county environmental coordinator.

Speakers also complained that the information was not made available online or in the Public Utilities Commission office in Wailuku.

The utility needs to create a shock absorberlike station that would allow MECO to control the electric fluctuations that are common to renewable energy sources, said Reinhardt.

“It allows you to manage the swing on the system and then charge up for when you need it when the wind’s not blowing or the wave isn’t there,” he said.

The rate change, he said, would eventually sunset for Maui County’s 60,000 customers once the projects have been paid off. Reinhardt said he didn’t know exactly how much the total cost will be since renewable energy projects keep popping up.

There are currently three private companies with alternative energy proposals on Maui. And several of the testifiers used their time before the commission to lobby for one in particular, the 21-megawatt expansion of First Wind’s Kaheawa Wind Farm.

The giant turbines on the pali above Maalaea currently produce 30 megawatts.

MECO has expressed a preference for Shell Wind, which has a 21 megawatt wind farm proposal at Ulupalakua that could also someday include a mountainside hydroelectric plant – powered by the wind’s electricity – that would essentially act as a giant battery and could produce energy on demand. The Shell project was originally proposed for 40 megawatts, but Reinhardt said that MECO can’t handle that much power at this time due to lack of storage. He said, right now, the largest batteries available can contain only 1 megawatt, and MECO doesn’t have one.

The third project produces energy by harnessing waves. The Australian company Oceanlinx Ltd. wants to build a 2.7 megawatt facility a half mile offshore from Pauwela Point in East Maui.

Mayor Charmaine Tavares has also been a proponent of a biofuel production, such as ethanol from sugar cane; a refuse burning plant at the landfill as well as capturing methane created during the breakdown of decomposing food waste and turning it into fuel.

“Maybe we haven’t done a good enough job of explaining to the public what we are trying to do,” Reinhardt said. “The Public Utilities Commission must approve every project. . . . We understand that our customers want to be a part of the process, and they will get their chance.”

This is really about encouraging alternative energy investment in our communities, Reinhardt said.

He also said, at least once a week, the utility speaks to First Wind, which changed its name this month from UPC Wind. The discussions are ongoing, and he said he can’t divulge any details since the negotiations are sensitive.

Efforts by The Maui News to reach First Wind executives Friday were unsuccessful.

Former Mayor Alan Arakawa was among those who expressed frustration, saying that the public will not be given a real voice in how these projects are prioritized.

Community and political activist Lance Holter said he favors a First Wind wind farm expansion today rather than a Shell project that could be at least four years down the road, he said.

“My feeling is that if we are going to pay for a public utility, we should have a choice,” Holter said.

Reinhardt said that all the applicants have to hold hearings before the commissioners. And it’s really up to the commission to decide on one project over the other.

In Maui County, 23 percent of the energy comes from renewable sources while a total of 16 percent of HECO’s power is from alternative energy. Most of the rest comes from MECO’s oil-burning steam facility in Kahului and diesel combustion plant in Maalaea.

Public Utilities Commission member Leslie Kondo said it typically takes about six months for the commission to reach a decision, as long as no one formally petitions to intervene in the case.

The surcharge would only take effect if a new renewable energy project is approved, Reinhardt said.

“The main thing that we want to convey is that this is a process that needs PUC approval and will benefit the Neighbor Islands, since Oahu customers are also included, but most of the alternative energy will be produced here or on the Big Island,” he said.

Finally, MECO wants to install a real-time metering system for individual users, so people can actually see where their energy is being spent in their home and try to manage it.

State Division of Consumer Advocacy Executive Director Catherine Awakuni said her agency has not made a recommendation on the application.

By Chris Hamilton
Staff Writer

The Maui News

18 May 2008

This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

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