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Choosing Molokai’s Energy Future

Maui Electric has identified a four-way fork in the road to Molokai’s energy future. Last week, the utility presented several options to reach the goal of 100 percent renewable energy for the island in a series of island-wide community meetings.

A large-scale solar project with battery storage, proposed by Molokai New Energy Partners, a division of Half Moon Ventures (HMV), figures largely into those options. The project includes 37 acres of solar panels to be located next to Maui Electric’s Pala`au Power Plant. An agreement between HMV and Maui Electric was recently reached, and Maui Electric submitted the proposal to the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) for review last week. If approved, the project would be operational by the end of next year.

In line with the state’s goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2045, Maui Electric officials believe Molokai has the potential to reach that goal even sooner, as early as 2020.

Several new rooftop solar and pilot programs are now available for residents wanting to install their own solar on their homes. In addition, electric vehicles owners on Molokai will get a big boost later this year with a charging station to be installed in Kaunakakai later this year, said Gregg Kresge, Maui Electric director of renewable energy, at the Maui Electric meeting held at Mitchell Pauole Center last Thursday.

The utility is also taking steps to modernize the grid, explained Chris Reynolds, Maui Electric manager of system operations. Currently, a 2-megawatt battery helps bring stability to the grid during short periods of energy fluctuation. Soon, Maui Electric will be installing a “load bank,” a last-resort system to help protect the grid from island-wide blackouts. Reynolds said additionally, they are adding more digital equipment to bring faster response time to many facets of the entire system.

With eyes to the future, Maui Electric staff said Molokai customer feedback will be key in deciding what route to take toward the renewable energy goals.

Mahina Martin, Maui Electric’s director of community relations, said the company took feedback from 13 roundtable meetings with residents, businesses and organizations starting last year. Using the mana`o of 113 respondents, Maui Electric identified the top three renewable energy resources for Molokai: solar, wind and biofuel. Taking into consideration community needs and preferences, technical expertise, environmental impacts, regulatory process and research and evidence, the Maui Electric team came up with four options to reach 100 percent renewable energy, said Martin.

Option one is to remain “as is,” with 11 percent rooftop solar that currently exists. It would involve remaining on diesel fuel until 2045, when the remaining 89 percent of the island’s energy generation would switch to biofuel.

Option two would use solar energy and battery storage to reach 100 percent renewable by 2020. This option utilizes HMV’s proposed solar project if approved, which would supply 27 precent of the island’s usage, as well as increasing residential and business rooftop solar installations to 34 percent of the total. A future large-scale solar project would supply 24 percent, while 15 percent would use biofuel for the generators as a backup energy source.

Option three would also bring the island to the goal by 2020 but would use different percentage breakdowns: 34 percent solar from HMV, 16 percent rooftop solar, 25 percent biofuel, and 25 percent from another renewable energy source.

Option four would also use mixed resources but reach 100 percent renewable by 2030. It would use 34 percent solar from HMV, 24 percent rooftop solar, 23 percent other renewables and 19 percent biofuel.

Graph courtesy of Maui Electric

Ellen Nashiwa, manager of customer solutions and planning at Maui Electric, said for the additional renewable resources referenced, the company is open to any type of renewable resource project that meets system requirements and lowers the cost for customers.

“We believe going 100 percent renewable energy is in the best interest of customers and an increase in renewable energy resources on the system can reduce the use of fossil fuel and the fuel supply on-island will last longer and be less reliant on barge shipment and there will be more programs to choose from to manage your own energy use and provide more… predictable bills,” said Nashiwa.

Some residents questioned how the percentages in the options were decided.

“We run all these complicated models,” said General Manager of System Planning at Hawaiian Electric, Todd Kanja. “But what I will say is… we are interested in actually harnessing these… resources and putting it all together in a way that is most cost effective for all residents of Molokai.”

Kanja said they also had to take into consideration the limitations of the current grid system.

“We acknowledge that the grid that we have today is not the grid that we need,” he said, explaining that Molokai’s electric grid is old and designed for one-way energy flow from the plant to the customer, rather than the two-way energy flow that is needed for customers to also generate their own power. He said Maui Electric is working on grid modernization efforts to make those modifications.

Several Maui Electric officials referenced Requests For Proposals (RFPs) for additional renewable projects in the future, which could come from a community-owned project.

Among other concerns, resident Lori Buchanan said she was disappointed that the HMV project did not have to go through an RFP process that would allow the utility to select the best project from a number of proposals.

“…[HMV] came to us with a proposal unsolicited,” said Sharon Suzuki, Maui Electric president. “We didn’t go out for requests for proposal, at that time they were the only ones knocking at our door. They were pushing us to negotiate with them quickly because at that time, the solar tax credits on the federal side were expected to expire in 2016. And so we made a good faith effort because it was consistent with the goal of 100 percent renewable and we started down that path and… we actually didn’t think it would go forward… it really wasn’t looking like there were going to be benefits to you folks in comparison… to just staying on fossil fuel, but what changed again was the New Market Tax Credits [that will fund the project at a lower cost].”

Suzuki added that the agreement is not yet approved and can’t move forward until it gets a green light from the PUC, a process that includes a 30-day comment period for residents to give feedback.

The full application document filed by Maui Electric for their purchase agreement with HMV can be found on the PUC website by searching for docket 2018-0053.



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