There is some good news on the Hawaii energy front — a healthy show of interest in grid-scale clean-energy projects.
The question is: Will this be enough to overcome the bad news of the last few weeks? Specifically: The need to lower fossil-fuel usage has intensified, and public resistance to technologies such as wind power has ramped up as well.
The best guess is that Hawaii is not yet assured of meeting the state’s goal of 100% renewable energy production. That means it’s time for a reality check. Utilities and policymakers now must examine whether the state’s green-energy goals are within reach.
Regulators are already starting that process by ordering a management audit of Hawaiian Electric. Co., which is the right stance at this stage.
Starting with the good news, the marquee event was last week’s dedication of the 20-megawatt (MW) West Loch Solar Project on 102 acres of the Navy’s West Loch Annex land in Ewa.
The new solar farm is now owned and operated by Hawaiian Electric Co. In exchange, HECO made $5 million in upgrades to three electrical substations and installed new electrical switches in the Pearl Harbor area.
That seems a good deal. The farm is projected to save on oil-based operational costs, $109 million over 25 years, a significant step.
And it’s good to see Hawaiian Electric Companies — HECO, Maui Electric and Hawaii Electric Light — create a unified Customer Energy Resources department to steer more ratepayers to rooftop solar and other solutions. The strategy does indeed need to increase customer participation.
That’s not the only hopeful sign. The utility reports that more than 100 proposals have arrived in response to a call for more renewable energy projects to quicken the transition away from fossil fuels.
This would be Hawaii’s largest single green-energy procurement effort and one of the largest by a U.S. utility, Hawaiian Electric executives have announced.
The exact where-when-how of the final projects won’t be known until the final award groups are names in May, according to the utility company, but proposals already include use of solar, wind, energy storage and other technologies.
There’s the rub. Current events suggest there could be more vehement opposition to projects — especially wind energy.
That’s become clear enough with the heated protests mounted against Na Pua Makani, the Kahuku windfarm project that’s already begun the construction process for eight turbines nearly 570 feet tall, cited as the tallest in the nation.
The project planners, AES Corp., increased the height to compensate for the reduction in the number of turbines, down from 13-15, according to the Na Pua Makani website.
The community resistance has been present throughout the regulatory review, but protest increased in temperature during the transport of turbine components to the project site. The protesters describe themselves as “protectors,” as have those who have assembled for months to block the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope.
The windfarm opponents may have adopted the stance of the Mauna Kea “kia‘i,” but haven’t yet enjoyed their success. AES has managed to get its turbines transported to the site, whereas the telescope consortium still awaits any official act to clear access to the TMT’s summit location.
Still, the combination of blockades, convoys and other high-profile demonstrations appears to have raised the threshold of what demonstrations might be expected of projects seen by the community as intrusive. AES still could face legal hurdles, though it is pressing ahead, despite any potential risk of a work-stoppage.
Should there be wind projects in the final list of HECO’s large-scale push for green energy, however, their proponents might not have the same resolve.
Wind has figured in the utility’s Power Supply Improvement Plan (PSIP), a blueprint filed with the Public Utilities Commission charting specific actions through 2021 to speed green-energy conversion as required by state law, by 2045. The document notes plans for 157 MW of grid-scale wind projects in the overall mix.
HECO also has gone to the PUC with a request for a roughly 4.1% rate increase, and as part of that review, the commission has arranged for a management audit of HECO to be conducted independently by Munro Tulloch Inc., consultants in the utility sector. “Program and project management” will be part of the audit’s scope, so more information on how the utility is addressing this issue should be forthcoming.
Meanwhile, the U.N. World Meteorological Organization has just reported that greenhouse gas emissions have hit a record high, which, if anything, makes the need to stay on track all the more urgent.
The pressure to keep the well-developed wind technologies in the state’s energy portfolio will be intense, but for it to stay there, the utility, its private partners and the state will need to sharpen efforts to address community concerns. They are not likely to go away anytime soon.