The Hot Mess of Hawai‘i’s Renewable Power Push
June 18, 2019 6:01 AM   Subscribe

Can the small Hawaiian island of Moloka‘i and its utility get along well enough to teach the rest of the world how to get off fossil-fueled electricity?

Moloka‘i is a bastion of sanity and understatement at the center of the Hawaiian archipelago. Just 40 kilometers of open water away from O‘ahu, the island is a far cry from Honolulu’s hectic tiki bars and tourists, universities, cargo yards, and warships. On Moloka‘i, agriculture and subsistence hunting and fishing still sustain many of the 7,500 or so residents, and visitors are few. There are no traffic lights, and the roadsides are peppered with hand-painted signs extolling Indigenous rights and rejecting a litany of perceived intrusions from pesticides and cruise ships to short-term vacation rentals and GMOs. The few tourists who do make the hop over rank mailing a coconut home as their top experience.

posted by poffin boffin (14 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Honolulu-based Hawaiian Electric, the investor-owned utility that controls Moloka‘i’s grid, must meet a mandate from the state legislature to convert the five island grids it operates to 100 percent renewable energy by 2045. No utility on Earth knows for sure how to accomplish that yet.

Maybe that statement is accurate, maybe not, but Hawaii is certainly not alone in this goal: List of 126 U.S. towns/cities, 11 counties, and 7 states/territories committed to 100% RE by or before 2050

180 large companies committed to 100% RE on or before 2050

This one weird trick can help any state or city pass clean energy policy (hint: it involves voting)

Germany joins push for EU-wide 2050 net zero emissions goal (last month 62% of Germany's electricity was carbon free, In May Great Britian was coal free for two weeks)
posted by gwint at 8:11 AM on June 18 [5 favorites]

Molokai, specifically Kalaupapa was a leper colony until 1969. The book sharing the same name is a good read.
posted by msbutah at 9:31 AM on June 18 [1 favorite]

In contrast, Alabama perhaps shows how not to do it, with a regressive, double-dipping, $5-per-kW monthly fee to solar panel users, which has effectively stopped deployment of solar in the state.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 10:15 AM on June 18 [7 favorites]

Love the "one weird trick," gwint: Elect Democrats.
posted by billsaysthis at 10:19 AM on June 18

Perhaps following Honolulu's light rail project has raised my tolerance level for clusterfucks, but frankly the roll-out of solar on Moloka'i doesn't sound that bad, relatively speaking. The same issue has cropped up widely in the northeast as well, with utilities trying (often successfully) to kill net metering. Which is why we need municipally- or community-owned utilities rather than this weaksauce public/private bullshit we have across the country now. Moloka'i Shared Power sounds like a really promising project, in that regard.
posted by tobascodagama at 11:27 AM on June 18

No utility on Earth knows for sure how to accomplish that yet.

Gwint's right to be suspicious. Samsoe, a Danish island, has long been 100% renewable for its electricity and is also up to about 75% renewable for its heat. Having said that, Samsoe is connected to the mainland which makes grid balancing a sight easier. I think there will be others. There is currently a documentary series on Netflix, 'Islands of the Future' which looks at some approaches to going renewable at this scale. I think it covers Samsoe, but also El Hierro (Spanish renewable island), Iceland and a couple of others.

I am currently working on developing a plan to get an island to 100% renewable electricity and it is by no means an easy thing. The first 50-70% tends to be pretty straightforward, depending on how friendly the residents, local community and government are, after that it gets pretty difficult. Balancing, acceptability of some estimated amount of downtime, profit margin against investment, etc.

It's interesting to see an example in the real world of what might be the beginning of a utility death spiral, where network costs all get lumped on to those who are left on the network when everyone goes off grid or is using so little power they don't contribute very much to maintaining the grid. Latest thinking is it's not supposed to happen. This is exactly the sort of issue that makes looking at small systems first to see what might happen in larger systems, as mentioned in the article, but you have to be careful about that too. You can get a lot more diversity of generation in larger systems than in small ones.

One thing that might have been investigated more was the potential for community investment, overseen via a community owner company. This can be set up so votes don't reflect investment (or so it does) which means there's potential for projects to reflect more collective approaches.
posted by biffa at 11:36 AM on June 18 [10 favorites]

We turned on our solar panels earlier this year. We juuuuuust got in under the deadline and so we have net metering; the utilities managed to get their preferred candidates on the Arizona Corporation Commission in 2016 and they killed net metering for the state. There is no excuse for Arizona to be putting up any obstacles at all to solar power, but there you have it. I understand the need to be able to operate a consistent grid. However, I also understand that we need to be moving to renewables and that's getting more and more urgent. Grid balancing is a tough problem and I get that, but it's no excuse for inaction. These are problems that can be solved, and they should have been starting to solve these problems 40 years ago, except Reagan decided "energy policy? Let's just burn more oil, gas and coal and what's the worst that could happen?" This is going to require a massive public investment, and I don't have to preach to this choir that it's a very wise investment to make.
posted by azpenguin at 1:44 PM on June 18 [5 favorites]

Do you know of any movement in AZ to try to reinstate some improved form of net metering? It is so ridiculously stupid to discourage solar here, and there has to be a way to charge people appropriately for grid maintenance while still paying them reasonably for the power their system provides.

I wonder if the Moloka’i Share Power model could work for isolated communities in rural AZ too (assuming it actually works out eventually in HI).

I also wonder about the scalability issue; how much harder is the load balancing among a few thousand residents than it would be in a city of a hundred thousand? Or, Is it really easier at small scale?

And, is the maintenance of a grid really worth it in the long run? Or, as battery tech and solar penetration improves, maybe the losses due to transmission and grid maintenance would outweigh the benefit of each house having its own completely separate system.
posted by nat at 3:16 AM on June 19

Huh, maybe they already are— this doc mentions 6 energy collectives in AZ.

But it also mentions some investor owned setups, like Ajo Improvement Company, who may have some of the same issues as the Maui company mentioned in this post. I haven’t found a comprehensive roundup, but this article talks about AIC’s proposed huge rate increases, as well as the fact that at least in 2018 it was owned by Freeport, a mining company. (But they have a very slick website.. )
posted by nat at 3:39 AM on June 19

(AIC did not manage to get their rate increases past regulators. One of the regulators was just recently elected to the commission in 2018; elections matter!)
posted by nat at 3:58 AM on June 19

I don't know of any organized movement to get net metering re-instated. Most likely, it would end up having to be done at the ballot box, because unless there's a tectonic shift on the Arizona Corporation Commission, those rules will not be reinstated (and if they were, the utilities would tie it up in court forever, and the state Supreme Court is likely their best friend now.) A ballot measure would be messy, since the utilities would dump tens of millions into an effort to kill it, telling everyone it'll double their rates, which is what they did to beat Prop 127 at the ballot box. 127 would not have reinstated net metering explicitly, but the practical outcome would be the same.
posted by azpenguin at 3:06 PM on June 19 [1 favorite]

Gwint's right to be suspicious. Samsoe, a Danish island, has long been 100% renewable for its electricity and is also up to about 75% renewable for its heat. Having said that, Samsoe is connected to the mainland which makes grid balancing a sight easier.

I mean, it makes it vastly easier because you only have to generate as much energy over the year as you use which is not so hard in a windy area. This is also why Denmark as a whole generates so much of its electricity from renewable sources, they use Norway and their massive hydro plants as a big battery.

It's interesting to see an example in the real world of what might be the beginning of a utility death spiral, where network costs all get lumped on to those who are left on the network when everyone goes off grid or is using so little power they don't contribute very much to maintaining the grid. Latest thinking is it's not supposed to happen.

Whether utility death spirals happen has to do with how many people go off-grid. Which in turn is linked to the cost of storage. The thinking is:

1) At the margins, people "defect" from the grid by going to a totally self sufficient renewable + storage solution for their own houses.

2) This leaves the costs of the grid infrastructure and the costs of balancing spread over fewer people.

3) That increases costs just enough for another tranche of people to go off-grid.

4) Go back to step 2.

Costs per grid-connected household spiral up and eventually there's no-one left.

I've always had some issues with this reasoning, specifically:

1) The places best suited for defection from the grid are places where the population density is low and people therefore have space for a lot of solar and wind on their own property. Those places are the highest cost to serve for distribution utilities and are only served at all because governments enforce uniform distribution pricing to ensure universal coverage. If enough of those people defect, you actually reduce the overall cost of operating your distribution network.

2) Unless battery storage costs reduce substantially, the costs of being totally off-grid vs mostly off-grid are enormous so the cost of paying for grid access vs. going off-grid will not tempt many people to defect from the grid.

3) Even if battery storage comes down enormously, it may still be cheaper to connect your house to a grid with attached renewables and storage. The world is getting progressively more urban. Urban environments have little space for renewable generation per household, little space for on-site batteries, and low grid costs anyway. For illustration, the latest Lazard analysis on levelized cost of storage has the cost LiOn batteries in peaker replacement and microgrid uses as $268 / MWh and $346 / MWh respectively and the cost of residential systems at $950 / MWh.
posted by atrazine at 1:40 AM on June 20 [1 favorite]

Thanks atrazine, I somehow stopped about halfway through describing the death spiral for no good reason.

Whether you move totally off grid or only partially, say 80%, can still move you out of supporting the grid financially, and thus lump costs on to the remaining consumers, depending on how you are billed. Where I am you pay for the grid largely dependent on a per unit cost. So if you produce 80% of your own electricity you take 80% less from the grid and the grid operator gets 80% less income. As you say 70-80% is a lot easier for the household than 100%. The grid operator may see some cost reduction in terms of reinforcement and wear but probably not the full amount in terms of already having spent money that might not now come back. If they have to increase unit costs then it might drive more consumers off-grid as the economics of being on grid get worse.

The UDS has been challenged as a possibility as I mention. But its a way more exciting phrase then we normally use in energy discussions so I can't help but be drawn to it!
posted by biffa at 5:57 AM on June 20

Yeah, here in the UK our distribution charging is also split across a mix of per kWh unit charges and fixed charges. I tend to think of the UDS as having a soft and a hard variant though.

In the soft variant, people stay connected but use less energy and the current charging structure no longer reflects the benefits they are receiving. That can be resolved by adjusting the charging structure. For an average household in the UK, 13% of their distribution use of system charge (itself about 10% of their electricity bill) comes from the fixed component. That can be increased. Additionally, standard LV customers here are not charged based on time banding at present except if they have a smart meter. At present, charging of distribution use of system for smart meter customers is based on consumption in three time bands which are set ahead of time + a fixed charge per day. This can be updated in the future if required to be more dynamic.

Generation is separate from distribution everywhere in the EU so we are charged for balancing separately through our energy retailers.

As long as the value of the services provided by grid attachment, including balancing, is less than the cost of providing it, it is possible to come up with a charging arrangement which is sufficiently cost reflective to keep people on and the soft variant is soluble.

In the hard variant, the value is genuinely less than the cost for some subset of people. You can design charging structures which reduce their costs to be below cost reflectivity (as indeed more or less everywhere does for very rural areas) and subsidise those users or let them drop off.

The UK probably has this somewhat easier as a single regulator is accountable for the charging structures and it is therefore not so difficult to change them over time.
posted by atrazine at 7:39 AM on June 20 [1 favorite]

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