Rob Parsons

Maui County Energy Expo

Event generates hope, reveals obstacles to implementing renewables

by Rob Parsons

September 17 , 2009

Maui County Energy Expo

"What we have now is not a plan; it is a series of recommendations. We need a master plan." - Wayne Axelson, Chair, Maui County Energy Alliance Working Group-3 (Energy and Transportation Infrastructure)

The 2009 Maui County Energy Expo—"Our Energy Future; Concept to Reality"—convened last week. The event, which brought together experts in various fields, highlighted recommendations gleaned over the past 16 months by five volunteer working groups of the Maui County Energy Alliance. Ironically, the venue was the same as the first Energy Expo, held in November 2007: the Grand Wailea Hotel & Spa, second-largest energy consumer of all Maui Electric Company's customers.

Nevertheless, an enthusiastic audience filled the resort's Haleakala Ballroom to hear Mayor Tavares and her invitees present both the promise and the pitfalls of Hawaii's renewable energy future. Despite a somewhat self-congratulatory tone, there was enough critical data and analysis provided to allow the discerning listener to take home valuable insights on how to reboot our local energy economy and electrical grid.

Democratizing power

Ted Liu, Director of the Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development, and Tourism, offered introductory comments, emphasizing Maui's pivotal role in Hawaii's energy future. He noted that national press has recognized Hawaii as a leading incubator of renewable energy, that Maui is rich in renewable resources, even geothermal, and that "Maui is a critical linchpin of the effort" to develop a new electrical grid distribution system.

"We are entering an era of unprecedented opportunity," said Liu, "and unprecedented alliance." He touched upon the plan to tap into as much as 300-400 megawatts of wind power on Lanai and Molokai, and to transmit that energy to Oahu via an inter-island undersea cable.

But keynote speaker Henk Rogers of Blue Planet Foundation followed Liu's remarks by saying that Gov. Lingle's Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative (HCEI) is heavily dependent on the concept of the undersea transmission cable. "That choice can only come with buy-in from the communities," said Rogers. "It cannot be dictated from Honolulu."

Rogers, who made a fortune developing and licensing the video game Tetris, shared the most interesting presentation of the two-day conference. He used the "show and tell" image capabilities of PowerPoint more effectively than all the other text-heavy offerings.

Rogers said the state had studies and a plan as far back as 1974 to get us off fossil fuel by 2010. He even cited a letter to the editor from a 1902 edition of the Honolulu Advertiser, suggesting that Oahu's strong Pali winds could provide cheap electrical power. "We simply forgot the importance of what was before us," he said. "Other crises commanded the public's attention."

Rogers has set a goal—actually his stated "mission in life" after a heart-attack wake-up call—of ending carbon-based fuels within a decade. This is even more ambitious than the 70 percent renewable energy by 2030 goal of the Governor's HCEI.

Rogers foresees a new role for utilities: power distributors, not power producers. He likened an emerging "smart grid" to the Internet, which has the ability to both send and receive information. He compared the current electrical delivery system to televisions in the 1950s—only a few stations available, and for limited hours.

"Democratizing our power in Hawaii," said Rogers, "will involve putting power in our democracy." He called for transformative change, including energy storage systems for when electricity isn't flowing, and new paradigms for transportation. Ultimately, he said, we are striving for, "Not just sustainability, but survivability. Blue Planet Foundation wants to bring together the best of us and catalyze revolutionary change."

Giving our leaders a blueprint

Five volunteer working groups were invited to join the Maui County Energy Alliance beginning in May 2008, and to offer recommendations in these categories: Renewable Resource Development; Green Workforce Development; Energy and Transportation Infrastructure; Energy Efficiency and Conservation; and Greenhouse Gases and Carbon Emissions.

County Energy Commissioner Victor Reyes introduced the panel of working group chairs, noting that "energy efficiency and conservation is a virtual power plant." That would turn out to be a recurring theme in the priority recommendations of the five groups.

A call was made for energy efficiency audits for all County facilities, and for the County to set an example with installation of on-site renewables wherever possible. Suggestions ranged from simple things like carpooling to adding more solar photovoltaic and improving County water and wastewater infrastructure (as pumping requires large energy inputs).

While the laundry list of recommendations is impressive (see a full 128-page report at mauicounty.gov/index.aspx?nid=1439), one audience questioner said the entire process had a "top-down" feel, and wished that there could have been more community interaction and meetings in places "such as Hana and Haiku, not just at the Grand Wailea."

But panelists defended the process, and Planning Commissioner Jonathan Starr cautioned, "Don't diminish the value of what's happening here." Added Maui Economic Opportunity head Sandy Baz, "We need to give our leaders a blueprint and initiative."

The big bottleneck: Public Utilities Commission

One panel discussion, Regulatory Opportunities and Challenges, allowed a glimpse into the enormity of the policy-making challenges faced by the Public Utilities Commission. Chair Carlito Caliboso elaborated upon a few of the many dockets before the PUC, some with as many as 20 intervening parties. He noted, among others, the feed-in tariffs docket (an incentive mechanism to set above-market rates for utilities to purchase renewables from independent producers), de-coupling (adjusting a utility's profit-making so it's not simply tied to more energy production) and smart grid (integrating digital capabilities into a two-way electrical network). "The list is too long," said Caliboso.

Given the complexity of each of the dockets—and the fact that the three-man PUC also reviews matters regarding telecommunications, water and transportation utilities—it's a wonder they're able to make any progress at all. Panelist and environmental consultant Carl Freedman displayed a graph showing that Hawaii is dead last in allocating regulatory staff for states of equivalent size. And, in this time of budgetary constraints, it's hard to imagine the PUC getting the additional staff, resources and funding that might make it more effective.

Freedman also noted that the Consumer Advocate's office—which advises the PUC but has sometimes been accused of being more of a utility advocate than working on behalf of ratepayers—is similarly understaffed. He said the "new paradigm" for Hawaiian Electric Company, of being incentivized with cost recovery for a smart grid, is "a movie that hasn't been made yet. We have no screenplay or budget."

Mayor Tavares urged moving forward quickly. "We're not going to wait for a partner to come to us," she said, "we're going to move ahead." Yet, she cautioned against merely jumping on the "REBW (renewable energy bandwagon)."

Tavares said she dreams of Maui becoming a testing site and training ground for renewable energy, a vision she said is shared by the Maui Economic Development Board. But, she added, "We're far, far away from reality. We must crawl before we learn how to walk. We're in the crawling stage." Maui Time Weekly, Rob Parsons

Energy Fast Facts

• The Maui Electric Co. (MECO) generating station at Maalaea burns more than 1 million gallons of petroleum diesel weekly.
• A 1977 state Senate report showed that Hawaii's 96 percent dependence on imported oil was costing $500 million yearly. In 2005, two UH economists estimated that $3 billion was leaving the state to purchase fossil fuels for electricity and transportation needs. In 2009, the projected estimate for imported petroleum, gas, coal and ethanol is $8-9 billion.
• The MECO grid currently demands 210 megawatts daily. That number is projected to rise to 310MW by 2020.
• In 2007, 15.4 percent of MECO's sales were from renewables (wind, solar, hydro and biomass).
• MECO has 443 solar photovoltaic customers, providing a combined 2.94MW of power to the grid.
• Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar (HC&S) fuels its Puunene mill boilers by combusting cane fiber (bagasse), coal and waste recycled oil, selling an average excess of 12MW of energy to MECO. In 2008, HC&S burned 475,000 tons of bagasse and 95,000 tons of coal.