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Is Maui ready for island energy?

Each of Hawai’i’s islands is grappling with a near total dependence on foreign oil for electricity generation and transportation that is no longer considered sustainable. Despite Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s desire to connect most of the islands with underwater cables into one statewide grid, individual islands are currently trying to meet their energy needs in their own unique ways.

Kaua’i County is served by an electric utility cooperative called the Kaua’i Island Utility Cooperative (KIUC) owned by its members, the electric ratepayers. Ben Sullivan, a past KIUC board member and presently the energy coordinator for Kaua’i County, spoke to a lunchtime audience of 50-plus attendees at an event sponsored by Maui County and the Sustainable Living Institute of Maui (SLIM) at UH Maui College on Thursday, Feb. 16.

“One thing I can tell you is that we don’t regularly get this many people in a room at lunchtime to talk about energy on Kaua’i,” said Sullivan.

KIUC was created by a group of Kaua’i business leaders over a four-year period from 1999 to 2003, as Citizen’s Communications, a private company out of Connecticut, decided to divest itself of its electric utilities such as Kaua’i Electric. KIUC paid $215 million for the utility. It set a goal to generate 50 percent of its energy from renewable resources by 2023, according to its Website.

Sullivan credits Kaua’i County Mayor Bernie Carvalho and his Holo Holo 2020 Initiative, which established 38 specific projects in order to achieve a sustainable island.

The Kaua’i Energy Sustainability Plan (KESP), developed in 2009 by SENTECH Hawai’i and other planning professionals with input from stakeholders and the public, lays out a plan to use local, sustainable, renewable energy for ground transportation and electricity generation. KESP’s longer-term goal is 100 percent local, renewable, sustainable energy by 2050.

Currently, Kaua’i’s system peak load, the greatest amount of energy needed during a 24-hour period, is 75 megawatts (MW), explained Sullivan.

Maui’s peak load is around 200 MW, according to Maui County Energy Commissioner Doug McLeod.

Sullivan said that KIUC is able to provide 10 percent of its electrical power through renewable energy using solar photovoltaic (PV) and hydropower. It will focus on biomass, more hydro, more PV, battery storage and greater energy efficiency as it moves closer to its import-free energy future.

PV is projected to provide 25 MW, or 33 percent of KIUC’s power–an “impressive amount of solar,” said McLeod.

A question was raised from the audience about the noticeable absence of wind power in KESP. Sullivan explained that Kaua’i is blessed with having no mongoose, which results in an abundance of native seabirds, such as Hawaiian petrels and Newell’s shearwaters. Wind turbines may pose a threat to these protected birds, removing the option of wind power from the current energy plan.

Because KIUC is a not-for-profit utility, it is not eligible for the substantial state and federal tax credits available for renewable energy installations. Borrowing from the experience of other rural electric co-ops, KIUC has created a for-profit arm that can receive the tax credits.

On the other hand, after the presentation, McLeod expressed interest in the funding opportunities available to rural, not-for-profit electric cooperatives, as opposed to for-profit corporate utilities where most costs are borne by ratepayers.

A federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grant to 27 rural electric co-ops awarded KIUC $5.5 million to install a smart meter in every ratepayer’s home and business, an $11 million project. The smart meter, explained Sullivan, will create an integrated system that allows the utility to interact with a home’s energy usage to level out the peak demands.

“Five-hundred Kaua’i homes will pilot visual displays that provide instant feedback to homeowners on energy usage,” Sullivan said. “Another 500 will pilot the interactive ability of the utility to adjust energy use of appliances in the homes.”

“Co-ops are a challenge to manage,” commented Sullivan. “Each ratepayer is a part-owner of a democratically controlled entity. Sometimes a member thinks he or she should be able to have their way, forgetting that a decision has to satisfy the other members, too. How do you resolve disagreements? You hash them out and then hash them out 17 more times.”

Sullivan cited a Tuesday, Feb. 14, article in the Garden Island newspaper regarding a group that calls itself “The Kauai Transparency Initiative.” At a recent meeting, some of its members questioned the island-wide installation of the smart meters due to health and privacy concerns. Sullivan acknowledged that KIUC will have to continue to address these concerns.

Sullivan was asked whether Kaua’i’s co-op utility is replicable on Maui, given that HECO and MECO are publicly traded companies that have no current plans to stop producing and distributing electricity. He replied with a dilemma to ponder: “Creating a cooperative takes years. Plans and improvements get put on hold. Whether or not a co-op is even possible, is it worth a delay in increasing renewable energy sources at this point in time?”

Sullivan loves the KIUC and its goals for Kaua’i’s future. He explained that it’s committed to renewable energy, but it’s also committed to respecting the environment and the culture as it builds its portfolio of power systems.

“KIUC takes a lot of flack for some of its proposals, but, in the end, KUIC believes the community will decide what goes forward,” Sullivan said. “And we know that when we pay the KIUC bills, we’re paying ourselves.”

SLIM Executive Director Jennifer Chirico summed up the opportunity to share strategies between islands. “It is important for the islands to learn from each other by sharing our successes and challenges as we work toward greater renewable energy in Hawai’i. Mr. Sullivan’s presentation offered an interesting perspective on Kaua’i County’s energy challenges. Kaua’i’s seabird populations, water resources and cooperative utility structure are examples of differences that lead to unique energy solutions.”