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Beyond Big Wind: Molokai’s Energy Future

With the possibility of an industrial scale wind farm no longer hanging over the heads of many concerned Molokai residents, the community is now looking toward Molokai’s energy future. Many options are being discussed in a conversation that is including residents, land owners, state and county officials and other energy stakeholders.

Molokai residents pay among the highest electric rates in the nation, second only to Lanai. Those prices are due largely to the rising cost of fossil fuel used to produce electricity. The price of fuel so greatly impacts electric bills because more than 50 percent of each bill is made up of fuel costs, according to Hawaiian Electric Company (HECO). Molokai’s electricity is generated at the Pala`au Power Plant, which runs on diesel, operated by HECO subsidiary Maui Electric Company (MECO).

Cost of Keeping the Lights On
“We’ve got a real problem — people can’t afford their bills, and it keeps going up,” said Cheryl Corbiell of I Aloha Molokai, a local group dedicated to energy solutions for the island.

A recent survey of Molokai residents conducted by local nonprofit Sust `aina ble Molokai shows those rates put a huge financial burden on the community. Out of 281 residents surveyed, 43 percent pay between $150 and $350 per month on their electric bills. Eleven percent pay upwards of $450 monthly. Those costs consume a large percentage of residents’ monthly income, with 45 percent of those surveyed spending between 10 and 30 percent of their income on electric bills, and 12 percent responding that 30 percent or more of their income goes to pay for electricity.

“We understand the impact that high oil prices are having on our customers, so we need to develop as much renewable energy as possible to lower energy costs,” said MECO spokesperson Kau`i Awai-Dickson.

The island’s plant generation capacity is 15.2 megawatts (MW), with as much as 15 percent of Molokai’s peak electricity demand coming from renewable energy sources, mostly solar photovoltaic (PV). Maui’s generation capacity is nearly 20 times Molokai’s at 264 MW, with as much as 100 MW of that coming from renewable sources, largely MECO wind and hydropower plants.

Along with paying the highest prices, Molokai also uses the least amount of electricity per customer in the state.

“No one is Hawaii is using less energy per capita,” said Maui County Energy Commissioner Doug McCleod. “Due to the high price of electricity, Molokai people are conserving energy at a greater rate than anyone else.”

The monthly electricity consumption for residential customers on Molokai averaged 374 kilowatt hours (kWh) in 2011, while residents on Maui topped the state usage chart at 615 kWh average monthly consumption.

Included in the state’s Clean Energy Initiative goal of 70 percent clean energy by 2030 is an energy efficiency and conservation plan, called the Energy Efficiency Portfolio Standards, that call for a 30 percent reduction in electricity demands.

Because Molokai has the lowest energy consumption rates in the state, “the implication is that energy efficiency work has already been done on Molokai,” said McCleod. “Molokai is a place that you need to think about how to produce energy, not just conservation.”

Sitting Down at the Energy Table
Energy production is exactly what’s on the mind of many Molokai residents. For the past three months, a group initiated by I Aloha Molokai (IAM) called the Molokai Clean Energy Initiative (MCEI), named after the state’s initiative, has been meeting to explore Molokai’s energy future. The group includes residents, land owners, state and county officials and other energy stakeholders. Corbiell said the discussion will be opening up to the public later this summer.

IAM’s mission has been two-fold, according to Corbiell: the organization formed to oppose the industrial wind turbines and undersea cable proposed for Molokai, but members said once that was taken off the table, they would support community-based renewable energy generation and participate in state-wide discussion of the state’s energy goals.

“We’re doing what we said we’d do,” said Corbiell. The MCEI’s goals include making Molokai a model for clean energy efficiency, creating win-win scenarios for partnerships that make economic sense, community involvement in decisions and government actions and emergency preparedness.

Attendees have used the MCEI to become educated about each stakeholder’s roles, responsibilities and goals in relation to energy. Corbiell said she has learned more about the state and county’s efforts, as well as about how MECO operates and the challenges of operating an electric utility.

Mark Glick, energy administrator for the state’s Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism (DEBDT) said he was encouraged after attending one of the group’s meetings recently.

“There was a broad recognition and acceptance of state’s concept to pursue energy diversification,” he said. “There was a really genuine interest to forge coalitions to create greater self-sufficiency on Molokai… and a common resolve to look for solutions to lower prices for ratepayers.”

Exploring the Options
One discussion that has taken place at MCEI’s meetings is exploring the idea of creating a Molokai electric cooperative. Residents of Kauai has been operating the Kauai Island Utility Cooperative for the past six years, generating electricity under a co-op model owned and managed by its users. Corbiell said while Molokai residents adopting this hypothetical scenario would encounter many of the same challenge that MECO currently faces, the goal of any initiative to buy the utility would be stabilization of electric rates on Molokai.

“We’re not trying to drive [MECO] out, we’re just discussing what the options are,” said Corbiell. MECO has also participated in these discussions at MCEI meetings, offering insights into the challenges of running a utility company.

“We have been engaging members of the community on energy issues and the potential options that have the right fit for the island,” said Awai-Dickson.

McCleod said the financial aspect of the co-op option might actually be viable for Molokai residents. The book value of the utility is $17 million, he said, which is very low compared to other utilities, and offers a starting point for the conversation. McCleod said the U.S. government has billions in unused federal money designated for rural telephone or electric system use, which could potentially be used to both buy the utility as well as the equipment needed for its operation. While the process to secure this funding is long and complicated, the program already funded the Kauai utility, and McCleod sounded hopeful for Molokai if such an effort were to move forward with the support of residents.

“We’re waiting to see if there’s consensus of the Molokai community,” he said, adding the county’s role has been to offer expertise and guidance in asking the right questions to see if the co-op model is a good fit for Molokai.

Emillia Noordhoek, executive director of Sust `aina ble Molokai, said she does not favor the idea of an electric co-op, but expressed support of establishing micro-grids on Molokai.

A micro-grid is an electrical system that often features varying renewable energy sources powering multiple electric circuits forming a grid for a large building or group of structures. McCleod said the county is already pursuing the creation of micro-grids to power the new Molokai fire station and the soon-to-be-built Public Works baseyard on the island. One advantage of micro-grids is that even if they are tied into the MECO system, they can continue to generate electricity self-sufficiently in the case of a MECO power outage. This makes them an ideal option for emergency operations such as the fire station.

“For an emergency shelter, grid-tie PV [the use of solar photovoltaic panels that are connected to MECO’s grid] is not a sophisticated way to look at it,” said McCleod. “If there’s a tsunami… we want to make as much power as we can.”

Local nonprofit Ka Honua Momona has just completed the island’s first smart micro-grid, meaning if electric demand on its circuits exceeds the system’s generation capability, it will automatically shut off non-critical circuits. The system uses solar, wind and back-up generator with battery back-up to power energy efficient appliances and office equipment.

Using biomass — or organic materials as a source of energy — as an option on Molokai has also been discussed by residents and energy officials. Many agree it may not be a viable option for large-scale use on the island because of enormous quantity of biomass needed to produce energy. But McCleod pointed out that using a combination of renewable energy types could work well. For example, using solar panels to generate the majority of power, while using kiawe brush to offset generation during the island’s peak electricity usage — typically in the evening — could be a good solution.

“We need to broaden our thinking,” said Corbiell, emphasizing the strength of diversifying and decentralizing our energy sources.

Molokai Ranch is one landowner that has expressed interest in renewable energy generation for Molokai. Representatives have indicated particular interest in large-scale solar generation, but did not offer any details on their plans.

“They seem genuinely interested in a fresh start on energy issues,” said McCleod.

Sust `aina ble Molokai staff are currently working on an energy needs assessment for the island, which will gather data on Molokai’s energy usage — including fossil fuels, renewable sources, electricity and transportation — as well as opinions on the future of energy production and usage, according to Sust `aina ble Molokai’s Harmonee Williams. The organization has already collected data and conducted interviews and focus groups, with more to come. Staff hopes to release results this October.

Gathering State-Wide Momentum
Across the state, residents, utility companies and state and county officials are beginning to make progress toward a renewable energy future for Hawaii.

Glick said a state Reliability Standards Working Group comprised of energy experts, established by the Public Utilities Commission (PUC), is working to establish a “more robust set of standards” for adding additional renewable energy to each island’s electric grids. Their proposed “proactive approach” will encourage the utilities to take a more active role in better understanding available technology and the existing grid system so the state can move past its dependence on fossil fuel.

A key piece of the puzzle is the establishment of a new position within the PUC called the reliability administrator that will oversee renewable energy projects and make sure the process is optimized, according to Glick.

“We really believe we’re making progress,” he said. “I’m pleased with the collaboration around the state, and I believe there’s a fresh look across the board.”

Hawaii’s Clean Energy Initiative has set benchmark standards for conservation measures and the integration of additional renewable energy across the state.

“Molokai is doing a fairly good job toward the standards,” said Glick. “Between HECO and MECO, on any given day, you could have 50 percent renewable energy operating.”

On a political level, Corbiell acknowledged a significant, symbolic step taken by the state Senate in April, unanimously passing a resolution introduced by Rep. Mele Carroll that requests bottom-up participation in the energy planning process.

“Communities don’t want to be told their future, because they’re the ones that have to live with it,” said Corbiell. “It’s not a law, but it speaks loudly about what should happen with energy planning in Hawaii.”

At the same time, the Hawaiian Electric Companies have been working to develop five-year energy Action Plans. The plans are part of the Integrated Resource Planning (IRP) process which looks at how the utilities will meet future energy needs. The utilities intend to file an Action Plan for each subsidiary utility company with the PUC by the end of June, according to HECO. A public hearing will be held on Molokai June 19 at the Mitchell Pauole Center from 6 to 8 p.m. to gather community input on the proposed plans. Information about the IRP is available at irpie.com.


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