Rob Parsons

The Answer, My Friend

Winds of change blow for Maui's energy future

by Rob Parsons

November 01, 2007

What perfectly clean power looks like
photo: courtesy of Kaheawa Wind Power.

Hawai'i relies on imported fuels more than any other U.S. state, with about 90 percent of energy production coming from imported petroleum. This should serve as a poignant reminder for residents that Hawai'i is geographically vulnerable and needs to pursue locally abundant renewable resources like solar and wind power.

These are among the topics for discussion at the Maui County Energy Expo 2007, to be held Nov. 7-9 at the Grand Wailea Hotel & Spa. The symposium, titled "Green Power, Green Future," should provide an informative forum of current and proposed energy solutions, conventional fossil fuel systems and renewable options.

Despite Maui Electric Company's (MECO) diesel-gulping power plants in Kahului and Ma'alaea, Maui County actually leads the state in alternative energy production. As much as 20 percent of our electricity is produced from Hawai'i Commercial and Sugar's hydropower and biomass (burning bagasse, the byproduct of sugar production) and by wind power.

Leading the way is Kaheawa Wind Power's 20 turbines on the ridge above Ma'alaea, capable of producing 30 megawatts of electricity. Maui's peak demand, the period in the late afternoon and evening when MECO's users are drawing the most energy from the grid, is around 200 megawatts.

Kaheawa Wind Power's parent company is UPC Wind, developing more than 50 wind power projects across North America. Constructed at a cost of $72 million, Kaheawa connected with the MECO grid in June 2006. With an average daily output of about 12 megawatts, they offset some 600 barrels of oil. Since less diesel is used for electrical generation, customers also benefit with a smaller fuel surcharge on their monthly bill.

With zero emissions, wind is perceived as a clean, renewable energy source. The most obvious impact of wind power is visual, but that's a matter of perception. Mike Gresham, Vice President of UPC Hawai'i Wind Partners LLC, said that for every letter to the newspapers complaining about the wind turbines standing out on the West Maui Mountain skyline, there were two or three others defending the visual impact, inasmuch as it represents clean energy.

Situated on state conservation land, Kaheawa pays $7 million annually to lease the site. A portion of those funds go to raising Nene goslings, researching the Hawaiian hoary bat and native plant restoration at the top of the project site as part of a comprehensive Habitat Conservation Plan.

While diesel electric generation is considered "firm power," wind is "as available power" and must be integrated into the MECO grid. This requires careful management by MECO since wind-generated energy may be curtailed throughout the day or night, thus integrating far less than maximum wind power output. Because of this, "you won't see 100 percent renewable energy from wind," Gresham said.

Nevertheless, UPC Hawai'i Wind is looking at potential projects on Oahu, Kauai, Molokai and for another 21-megawatt expansion of the Kaheawa site. Because their original plans did not anticipate expansion, they must prepare a new Environmental Impact Statement study and other permits, including a Conservation District Use Application with the state.

Additionally, they must assure MECO that the utility will be able to use additional wind power. They expect to accomplish this through advanced technologies in wind forecasting and battery storage. A new dry cell battery may provide the answer they've been seeking.

"Maui could be among the first places on the planet," Gresham said, to use the new battery prototype-which contains no hazardous materials and the ability to hold a constant charge-discharge state. This development could substantially boost Maui's renewable energy capacity.

Across the Maui's Central Valley, up at Ulupalakua Ranch, a partnership with Shell Windenergy, Inc. is in the planning stages of a 40-megawatt project. State wind maps show far less wind in the lee of Haleakala, and studies for the exact location of turbines are still being done. The likelihood is that 20 two-megawatt turbines would go up on the lower elevations of the 20,000-acre ranch.

The project also anticipates incorporating a pumped storage component, so it would be a combined wind-hydro project. By constructing water storage reservoirs both mauka and makai, wind-generated electricity could pump the water uphill at times when it can't be integrated into the grid. When electrical demand increases around peak usage times, water could run downhill, passing through turbines to generate energy, with the power then being connected to the grid.

The multiple components of the project will surely result in complicated permitting, and high construction costs. Generally speaking, some subsidies and tax credits are available for renewable energy installations.

Wind power tax credits versus rising electrical costs could influence home and small business owners to install solar photovoltaic small wind generator systems. Solar PV systems may qualify for up to 35 percent tax credits, with wind systems eligible for 20 percent credits towards cost and installation.

Maui Energy Company is a backyard business making small wind systems available for off-grid or grid-connected customers throughout Maui. Local owner Leo Caires went through extensive training with Southwest Wind Power of Flagstaff Arizona, and now provides a variety of systems designed for low wind speeds of nine to 25 miles per hour.

Caires, a former standout athlete at Maui High and the University of Wyoming, said he became interested in alternative energy when he spent a season playing football in Spain for the Barcelona Pioneers. Gasoline sold for about $6 a gallon, he said, but the Spanish people were resourceful at adapting to high energy costs.

Returning to Maui, he met Mike Goodwin of the Kaheawa Wind Power project, who took him up to view the site. Impressed, Caires thought, "Why not make this clean technology available on an individual basis?"

The focus of his business is small turbines using Skystream technology, with low noise and low overall height for good esthetics. The Skystream systems also feature built-in inverters, so Alternating Current (AC) power comes directly from the turbine (most wind systems generate Direct Current (DC) power, which must then be converted to AC before being used.) The wiring can go directly into the electrical box, and software is available to download wind speed and energy output information into a home computer. Residential customers producing more electricity than they use can enter into a net-metering agreement with MECO and get compensated at a retail rate.

Interest in Caires' wind systems has been high, but actual installations have been slower, due to permitting challenges. While the smallest system he sells has a tower height of 33 feet, the height to the tip of the turbine blade is 42 feet, which is above the 35-foot limit allowed in most County zoning categories.

It may be wise for the county administration to devote resources and manpower to streamlining the rules and processes governing sustainable energy systems. Conservation and efficiency programs for electrical and water usage would also benefit from far greater public outreach.

State and county agencies and officials have touted the need to support renewable energy efforts. But some poor choices have been made-with little or no public input-like Hawaiian Electric's Biofuels Master Plan. Collaborating with giant agribusiness and venture capitalists, HECO plans to build a new 110-megawatt biodiesel generating facility at Cambell Industrial Park on Oahu. Biodiesel fuel would be refined by two massive facilities: BlueEarth Biofuels on Maui (120 million gallons yearly) and Imperium on Oahu (100 mgy).

Plans to import huge quantities of palm oil from Indonesia and Malaysia indicate HECO's indifference to impacts on rainforest ecosystems, indigenous cultures and carbon emissions caused by thousands of slash-and-burn fires. Presumably, their thinking is that if biodiesel burned in HECO and MECO's generators produces lower emissions, then nothing else matters.

We have to watch government and big business, including our public utilities, to make sure they will do the right thing-not just what's easiest or most expedient. We also deserve to expect our elected officials to make bold course corrections to steer us on the path of energy security and self-sufficiency.

Holding the County Energy Expo is an important first step for interested community members to learn about our future energy potential. It's also a valuable opportunity to make sure that truly sustainable energy proposals are blown in by forceful winds of change.