Proposal Would Bring 100% Renewable Energy
A proposed renewable energy project for Molokai combines solar and stored hydroelectric power with the goal of 100 percent renewable energy for the island and lowered electric rates for local customers. The project, called Ikehu Molokai, is still in the early stages of discussion. It would be a joint endeavor between California-based Princeton Energy Group and landowner Molokai Ranch.
If completed, Molokai would become the first grid in the world to be converted completely to renewable energy, said Princeton CEO Steve Tabor.
“We were on sidelines for the Big Wind project [that proposed industrial wind turbines on Molokai], but we were kind of offended by the project — it was way out of scale,” said Tabor. “[After that] we said we’re interested in doing something smaller scale that addresses the needs of the island… [where] rates are ridiculously high and the electric grid is unstable.”
Tabor said his small company is known for innovative renewable energy projects around the world, and wants to bring that creativity to solve Molokai’s electricity challenges.
“My wife and kids have been going there [Molokai] for years on vacation,” said Tabor. “We really have a special affection for the island.”
The system Princeton has proposed for Molokai would consist of nearly 100 acres of solar panels located above Manila Camp outside Kaunakakai, which would produce 80 to 90 percent of the island’s energy needs, according Tabor. In addition to solar energy, which is only generated during the day, a circulating hydro system would store that energy and use it at night to create a constant source of renewable energy.
Using existing water reservoirs owned by Molokai Ranch in the Forest Preserve area, about 19 million gallons would circulate between an upper reservoir and a new, lower reservoir, according to project documents. During the day when the solar panels are generating electricity, some of that energy would be used to pump the water into the upper reservoir. At night, the water would be gravity-fed downhill, driving a turbine to generate electricity on its way down.
The use of water will not affect the amount of drinking water available, said Tabor. He said the lower reservoir would be filled one time only, and then it circulates in a closed-volume system.
The solar panels would be barely visible from Ranch Camp, though visible on the hillside from the highway. The solar field will be designed to minimize reflections toward the residences, according to Princeton project materials. Though the pumping station will also be near Manila Camp, the pumps will employ noise-mitigating technology and be enclosed in a building – quieter than current power plant, according to Princeton.
Tabor said under the proposed system, Princeton would sell electricity to Maui Electric and ratepayers’ bills would still come from the utility. But Princeton’s model calls for lowering Maui Electric’s current operating costs by five to eight cents per kilowatt-hour of electricity — a savings Tabor said Maui Electric says will be passed onto ratepayers.
Princeton’s plan also includes converting Maui Electric’s generators at the Pala`au Power Plant from fossil fuels to biodiesel.
Maui Electric’s Mathew McNeff, manager of Renewable Energy Services Department, said the utility has had preliminary discussions with Princeton, but could not offer any feedback on the proposal.
“While it is very premature at this point, our goal is to insure that any project we consider for Molokai makes sense for the island and the community and is an option that is cost-effective for our customers,” said McNeff, via email.
Tabor said Maui Electric is actually losing money running the Molokai electric grid, in addition to struggling with challenges with existing equipment and incorporation of increasing amounts of residential solar power causing instabilities in the electricity flow.
“We see this as being the win for everybody — residents will get a reliable grid and the utility won’t have management headaches,” said Tabor.
Tabor said Molokai Ranch is participating strictly as a landlord and will have no operational control over the system. Molokai Ranch staff did not return requests for comment on the project.
In order for the project to move forward, a slew of permits need to be obtained from the county, state and federal government, along with a power purchase agreement with Maui Electric that has to be approved by the Public Utilities Commission. Tabor said to make the project financially possible, Princeton has to get federal tax credits for solar projects that expire in 2016. The tax credits would account for 30 percent of capital cost of the project, and Tabor said if they don’t move forward in time to qualify before the expiration date, it would mean costs would be prohibitive to give residents electric rate relief.
As of now, Tabor said the company wants to start construction in middle of 2015 and the system would take 12 months to build.
Princeton has been meeting since February with the Molokai Clean Energy Initiative — a working group of energy officials, researchers and interested residents — as well as various individuals and groups like I Aloha Molokai.
Members of I Aloha Molokai, an organization originally to oppose Big Wind and the proposed undersea cable that would have carried electricity generated on Molokai to Oahu, support community-based renewable energy projects for Molokai but are still concerned about the potential of an undersea cable.
“We’re interested to learn more [about Princeton’s proposal] and we’d like to see some promises,” said I Aloha Molokai’s Cheryl Corbiell. “We want some faith that what they said to us about this not leading to a cable is true.”
Tabor said he will be back next month to meet with community members, especially residents of Manila Camp.
“So far, people seem to appreciate that this as being different from Big Wind,” said Tabor. “We really want the community behind this.”
While Tabor said he does not plan to hold a meeting with the entire community, “we want to meet with anyone who wants to meet with us.” Molokai residents can contact Molokai Ranch’s Dathan Bicoy for general inquiries at 552-2390.