The leading experts on energy grid technology work for the National Renewable Energy Lab
and they have been brought in to assist Hawaii in reaching its goal of 100% renewables. Their
work and conclusions will become the blueprint for other islands in Hawaii.
In dockets before the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission (PUC) regarding Hu Honua Biomass
and Puna Geothermal, we have often seen our incumbent monopoly utility trash talk energy
production from sources like wind and solar farms with large battery storage that are coming in
at more competitive prices than centralized thermal power plants.
Part of this comes down to profits as Hawaiian Electric has been foot dragging for years on
shutting down fossil fuel plants that they own. They also profit nicely from the old central power
plant model which has higher transmission and distribution costs that get tacked on to our
electric bills. Good for them and bad for consumers.
With the cost of wind, solar, and battery storage continuing to drop, biomass and geothermal
are just not competitive. Hu Honua and PGV (Puna Geothermal Venture) have tried to
circumvent the legally mandated competitive process under PUC rules by going for waivers. An
attempt at a loophole. Special treatment that means higher rates for all consumers. The PR spin
is to attack inverter based generation with low inertia as somehow inferior.
NREL, however, has shown that this just isn’t true. They have proposed some software and
control system changes to modernize the grid instead. The timing is good as the U.S. Senate
has approved a package that includes billions for grid upgrades as even Republicans in the
Senate recognize that the entire country needs a major investment in electrical infrastructure.
Additionally, the Hawaii PUC has set performance based standards that incentivize investments
that provide efficiency.
Much of the NREL work on Maui is developing sophisticated computer models. They want the
solar and wind farms to talk to grid operators to move electrons where they need to go in
changing conditions. This will also guide us in physical infrastructure deployment as well.
Rooftop solar can now be deployed as a grid resource by creating a virtual power plant.
Network thousands of individual systems together using smarter inverters and an interactive
software platform. Commercial buildings with energy management systems can dial down
demand by reducing AC loads rather than turning on expensive peak generation power plants.
Both demand-side management and decentralized renewables need this kind of computer
integration to work properly.
Hawaii is lucky to have the support of NREL to provide the blueprint we need to get to 100%
renewables while reducing our electric bills. It is a good news story and we can thank our
progressive PUC commissioners for providing the leadership.