KAHULUI – Renewable energy will be a big part of Maui Electric Co.’s future, with plenty of room for serious investors and partners, said outgoing President Ed Reinhardt.
Near-term projects include plans to seek a developer to help produce between 20 and 50 megawatts of clean energy in two stages on 66 acres by the Central Maui Landfill, with either a wind farm or biofuel plant, Reinhardt said, adding that the company expects to release a request for proposals as soon as this month for the project, which would come on line by 2016 or ’17.
“Biofuel: That’s the future,” he said. “The right thing to do is for us to get away from oil.
“Our goal is we want to stabilize the price of electricity,” he said. “We need to integrate the renewables and change the grid.”
He said incorporating renewables with a thinking electrical grid, large-scale battery storage and MECO’s diesel generators – for now – will help the company and customers weather the fluctuations in both oil prices and renewable energy outputs.
“There is no silver bullet, everything has its pros and cons when it comes to renewable energy,” MECO Renewable Energy Department Manager Matthew “Mat” McNeff said.
MECO’s current peak output is around 263.3 megawatts a day.
But the need for energy will continue to grow, Reinhardt said, once the economy picks up and people start moving to Maui again.
Also a major factor in their decisions is a state mandate for Hawaii to receive 40 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2030, he said.
The company announced earlier this month that Sharon M. Suzuki will succeed Reinhardt when he retires May 1.
McNeff said MECO is on pace to achieve 25 percent renewable energy by this year, largely due to partners at three existing and proposed wind farms totaling 72 megawatts.
Private home and business photovoltaic systems participate as well, he said.
However, the utility continues to struggle with the variability of renewable sources; fluctuations that occur when the sun sets or winds go still. That’s one reason why MECO has mandated that new renewable enterprises include plans for batteries to store surplus power and keep the supply stable.
Still, Maui County Energy Commissioner Doug McLeod said residents, thanks mostly to state and federal tax breaks, installed more photovoltaic, or solar, systems in the last year than in the 10 previous years combined.
And McNeff said there are 24 megawatts of photovoltaic in line or already installed. The county itself wants to install more than two-dozen solar arrays on its buildings soon.
And MECO is looking at a geothermal station, where volcanic heat creates steam power in a closed underground system, McNeff said.
The company is also prepared to work with the county on its proposal to harvest energy from methane gas generated at the Central Maui Landfill.
Another big project for MECO and separate Japanese investors are smart-grid tests under way in Kihei and Wailea. The projects include battery storage capability of up to 2 million megawatts as well as electricity-saving devices such as automatically turning off major appliances or lights when not in use.
However, “not everyone wants MECO to control their hot water heaters,” McNeff said.
Another test project McNeff described involves setting up goose-sized wind turbines with a solar panel on top to power outdoor lights in parks. He also discussed three possible MECO battery storage projects trying different technologies.
Perhaps the biggest potential project dates back about four years, when MECO did its first testing and focus groups to investigate the idea of hydro pump reservoirs, McNeff said. They exist in Japan.
A utility builds a lined reservoir atop a ridge, then releases water like a dam for hydro turbines. The water collects in an ocean pool and is pumped back up the hill, he said.
McNeff said it’s a concept MECO is seriously considering, if it can get the environmental permits. Another Maui hydro plan ended with the economic downturn.
“Unlike batteries, hydro can hold a lot of energy for a long time,” McNeff said.
Regarding biofuel, McNeff said it’s difficult to produce enough fuel yet to cover existing needs alone at the Maalaea and Kahului power stations.
But MECO was able to generate as much electricity with biofuel as it would with diesel at one of its Maalaea plant turbines for six months last year, Reinhardt said.
There’s also an algae project Reinhardt said the company is considering for a few years away. The U.S. Navy is currently working with Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. on a project to identify the best crop for producing biofuel that could power jets.
The company also continues to receive 16 megawatts from HC&S’ bagasse steam power station at its Puunene sugar plant.
So while MECO can be portrayed as “static” that’s clearly not true, McNeff said.
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