Rob Parsons

Hawaii and Maui Renewable Energy Rundown

Are we making progress toward energy independence? There's good news and bad news

by Rob Parsons

October 8, 2009

A few items of interest on the renewable energy (RE) front bubbled to the surface this week. Since the Energy Expo a month ago, I've been following a curious cover-up locally by Big Oil. There's also more news of government bureaucracy stalling forward movement. And, on the plus side, a promising ruling by the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC) that should help give power to the people.

The Good

Following the lead of top solar and wind producers Spain and Germany, a new PUC ruling opens the way for homeowners and businesses to produce their own power and sell excess to the utility, through a mechanism referred to as a "feed-in tariff" (FIT). Vermont set up a similar system last week, and Oregon's FIT kicks in next April.

Though the exact rates a small power producer will be paid still have to be worked out by the commission, the model will help reduce a lengthy application process and will provide certainty of payback rate. The rates are expected to be set high enough to serve as incentive to new electrical providers, but not so high that ratepayers will be overburdened with much higher costs.

At present, net-metering programs allow homeowners with solar photovoltaic systems, for example, to produce excess power, spinning their meter backwards and reducing their monthly bill as the energy goes into the utility grid. But under current guidelines, they can't be compensated for any excess electricity they generate.

Four RE technologies could qualify for FIT rates: photovoltaic, onshore wind, concentrated solar thermal and hydroelectric. Solar PV will likely benefit the most people, since it's most readily available.

Producers may generate up to 5 megawatts on Oahu, and 2.72 MW on Maui and the Big Island. Initially, the total amount of FIT projects is limited to 5 percent of the grid's capacity, and will be reviewed again by the PUC after two years. This should allow the utility time to integrate new sources into its grid, and even Hawaiian Electric Co. has expressed support. For the most fossil-fuel dependent state in the U.S., this is good news.

The Bad
Last Friday, Maui Electric Co. announced that it's asked the PUC for a 9.7 percent rate increase, to take effect next year. The average monthly residential electric bill could go up by nearly $14, while MECO says an additional $28 million in revenue yearly could be raised. A 3.7 percent rate increase went into effect in 2007.

MECO is rolling out a $122 million capital improvement program that looks to support a wide array of maintenance upgrades, from tree-trimming near utility lines to new and expanded substations. Modernization of the Ma'alaea Generating Station is also projected, as is a 100-kilowatt PV system for MECO's Kahului baseyard.

The drawback in the request is the difficulty for Maui County residents to participate in the PUC proceedings. Ideally, a series of public meetings should be held on Maui, Molokai and Lanai to explain the details of the proposal, and to hear input for alternatives.

Should the community find MECO plans are lacking in scope or specificity, a contested case hearing is possible, though that would be a daunting, time-consuming endeavor. The commission hasn't visited Maui since May 2008, when MECO asked for a small monthly surcharge to finance future, yet unspecified, renewable energy infrastructure.

On another forefront, the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism (DBEDT), the lead agency for implementing the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative, recently took a big step backwards regarding public inclusion in the process. On September 23, I received an e-mail (as a past attendee of planning sessions in Honolulu) that the draft Hawaii Bioenergy Master Plan (BEMP) was ready for review, and that comments must be submitted by October 2.

The Master Plan draft was linked with ten separate pdf files, totaling 849 pages—yet with just nine days for the public to review! Larry Geller, on his Disappeared News blog, elaborated, "The public will have a hard time even reading the report it is supposed to comment on in the time given. You'd have to read about 100 pages each day for the next nine days and then rush out a response." Life of the Land director and renewable energy guru Henry Curtis called this "top down planning, as if the public doesn't matter."

But DBEDT's Ted Peck refuted the criticism in a comment left on Geller's site. "Instead of nine days, the public has had 16 months," wrote Peck, "and will have 3 more months and of course plenty of opportunity during next year's session. I believe any assertion that the process hasn't been and doesn't continue to be without opportunity for public comment is without merit."

Once promising as a way to reduce our dependence on petroleum, biofuels and bioenergy have now lost some of their luster. Costs for local production in Hawaii may never make it viable, and importations come with shocking news of ecosystem devastation and human rights violations in major growing regions such as Central and South America and Southeast Asia, and rising food costs from the food vs. fuel controversy.

The Ugly
Last month's Maui County Energy Expo provided a two-day pep rally and information exchange for RE enthusiasts. One audience questioner asked panelists if government could support local RE businesses, so the state's push for renewables doesn't create a huge influx of Mainland companies moving in to reap the benefits.

DBEDT Director Ted Liu responded that the legislature approved not just a preference, but an actual "set aside," meaning government agencies must first contract with locally produced renewables. I watched as Kelly King of Pacific Biodiesel made a beeline to talk to Liu after he spoke.

King told me that Maui County recently switched their B-20 (20 percent biodiesel, 80 percent petroleum diesel) fuel contract for the Wailuku Public Works baseyard from Maui Oil Company to Maui Petroleum. Instead of using locally produced Pacific Biodiesel for their B-20 blend, as Maui Oil Company has for the past four years, Maui Petroleum apparently was importing biodiesel from an unnamed source.

Liu told King that if that was true, she could file a protest over the contract. King said she has contacted the Mayor's Office and Economic Development, but is still awaiting a response. King told me that while she doubts Maui Petroleum could import biodiesel for less than the cost of locally produced fuel, she is concerned over possible predatory pricing from Mainland companies. "Either way," said King, "the info about the state rule needs to get out so that other businesses can benefit as well."

Curious as to where the mysterious imported biodiesel originated, I placed a call to Maui Petroleum. I was shocked by the response to my inquiry: "What business is it of yours?" shot back an unidentified man who took the call.

I explained that I believe it's in the public interest, especially since taxpayer dollars are involved. "I think we only have to explain that to the County, because we are doing business with them," the employee responded before adding, "it's none of your business."

Earlier this week, I asked Maui Time editor Jacob Shafer to try his luck at getting the information. As I sat in his office, the conversation with the Maui Petroleum official was even shorter. "We're not discussing that with anyone," said a man who didn't identify himself but sounded like the same employee, before abruptly hanging up.

It begs the question—what are they trying to hide? Their evasiveness only heightens suspicions that they're importing biodiesel from an unscrupulous source: Malaysian palm oil, South American soybeans or other areas where rainforests have been wiped out, replaced with mono-crop agribusiness operations covering hundreds of thousands of acres.

Maui Petroleum: just because you've built a statewide empire on fossil fuel profits doesn't grant you a free pass. (We'll keep digging and see if we can get to the bottom of this.) To use Kelly and Bob King's mantra: "all sustainability is local." Maui Time Weekly