The cost of your future electric bill rests, once again, with the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission.
It’s been years since Hawaiian Electric, Maui Electric and Hawaii Electric Light Co. began their joint effort to plan Hawaii’s energy future.
Their most recent power supply improvement plan, or PSIP, includes how to gather 100 percent of energy from renewable sources such as solar, wind and water by 2045 – a goal required by state law.
The decision ahead for the commission not only will affect consumer prices for electricity in the short term, but also in the future – and whether Hawaii can lead the nation and become the first state to get all power renewably.
The commission describes input about the PSIP as “voluminous.”
Many want fossil-fuel facilities dismantled. Others want faster progress. Some emphasized safety. Others want more diversity in where power will come from. That’s all mixed with consumer angst about energy prices.
“We’ve received a lot of comments. This has been a long, complex proceeding,” Public Utilities Commission Executive Officer Delmond Won said.
Many think it’s time the commission approve the latest PSIP, perhaps with commission provisos added.
The commission could either accept the PSIP, reject it, or say “it’s filed and we move on,” said Henry Curtis, vice president for governmental affairs for the nonprofit Puna Pono Alliance.
It’s not clear what the commission will do with the PSIP this time, he said.
“It’s like a train track that’s half built, with a lot of time and money, and you wonder what to do with it,” Curtis said.
The latest PSIP version says “concerted efforts” were made to keep electric bills low. Prices will go up short term, the report says, due to transition costs, but will flatten or decline slightly on a “real-dollar basis” long term.
Each party in the PSIP debate has priorities, or agendas (depending upon who describes them).
The Tribune-Herald has gathered some for reader review.
What is a PSIP?
The latest version of the Hawaiian Electric Companies power supply improvement plan “outlines a detailed plan charting the specific actions … to accelerate the achievement of Hawaii’s 100 percent” renewable-energy goal by 2045.
Potential energy sources
Options for renewable energy include rooftop solar, biomass (which might use plants that could otherwise be eaten), solar farms, geothermal, water power from streams and ocean waves, wind farms and floating ocean wind turbines.
When will technology such as floating wind turbines in the ocean start producing power?
Jenes Petersen, owner of AW Hawaii Wind, a subsidiary of Denmark’s Alpha Wind Energy, said his company thoroughly researched the idea.
But it could take four years to complete essential agreements with the Navy, and five years for permits. It could be six to 10 years “before you can expect something to realistically start to happen.”
“Rooftop solar makes the most sense,” Curtis said. That’s because it’s easy to install, low cost and non-intrusive. Wind power is next, in his opinion. Then water power and, last, geothermal.
Too fast or too slow?
Harold Robinson, president of Island Bioenergy, the biofuels parent of Hu Honua Bioenergy, said as long as utilities aren’t “deactivating existing fossil fuel in favor of renewables,” transition is too slow. Biomass (plants converted to energy) is a well-understood, reliable power source, he said.
“You don’t need the sun or wind in order to power biomass,” Robinson said.
Little wind energy is produced on calm days. On cloudy days, solar has similar limitations.
But biomass can make energy any time, including days when other power sources might be unavailable.
Robinson wants the PSIP to include fast retirement of fossil-fuel production, and PSIP authors to recognize they “could save approximately $1.3 billion over 30 years relative to fossil-fuel plants” with biomass energy.
Petersen said the best thing Hawaii could do “is tap into geothermal energy.”
It’s quick, available and relatively cheap heat energy from volcanoes, but with many community concerns to address before approval, he said.
Change takes time
To use geothermal energy with cable interconnections between the islands, Petersen said, “you’re probably talking two generations.” Complex issues take time for community acceptance – similar to the first wind farms, interisland ferries and telescopes, he said.
Also, solar homes now require battery storage for excess energy instead of sending it to the power company.
As a result, “there has been a marked drop-off of solar systems going in,” Curtis said.
It’s not necessarily bad to convert more homes to storage because it makes the power supply more self-sustainable, Curtis said. In the meantime, solar investment and solar-power companies take a hit.
“The cost of batteries will eventually go down,” said Marco Mangelsdorf, director and secretary of Hawaii Island Energy Cooperative and president of ProVision Solar. “It’s going to take time, and it’s going to be in fits and starts.”
Should networks be modernized?
If an electric company needs more power in the future, it might draw from solar power stored in homes.
“We’re going down a new route, and I know a lot of people want to move there faster,” Curtis said. “But it’s more important that we aim in the right direction.”
That might include developing micro-grids to replace or modernize the current power-supply network, which could encourage use of homeowner power.
The PSIP calls for modernizing the current grid, but many want it to abandon fossil fuels faster.
“The grid that we have is very 19th century, and times are changing very rapidly,” Curtis said.
The way electric companies see the future, he said, “is the grid will become much more interactive and everybody will eventually be a buyer and a seller.”
Petersen said floating ocean wind turbines are doable. The biggest roadblock, hurricanes, is under study and the key is building turbine blades that are able to survive damage or be quickly repaired.
“Eventually a solution will be developed that will make it survive, at least good enough that you could get it back online,” Petersen said.
Hawaii’s unique role
Curtis said only three states are moving toward renewable-energy reliance: New York, California and Hawaii.
“The terrain that each of the states are going into doesn’t exist,” he said. Most current power “generators” in Hawaii are rooftop solar panels.
“That model of tens of thousands of generators is totally new,” Curtis said.
“We’re not only on the cutting edge, we’re building the cutting edge,” Mangelsdorf said.
When will there be a decision?
The Public Utilities Commission just got input “from all stakeholders” Feb. 14.
“Our staff are still reviewing those,” Won said. The PUC, he said, wants to complete its review and vote “as soon as possible.”
In the meantime, many wait.
Mangelsdorf calls outright rejection of the PSIP unlikely.
“I think they’re going to do something other than tell Hawaiian Electric to go back to the drawing board again,” he said. “I don’t think they’re going to do that.”
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