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Power Outages Unexplainable

Maui Electric Company representatives visited Molokai last week to discuss a series of power outages on the island over the last year and explain their cause — or rather, to call them unexplainable.

There were 16 major outages on Molokai between Jan. 6 and Dec. 22, 2013, according to Joe Kentz, manager of Maui Electric’s transmission and distribution department. Three of those, not including a fourth in January of this year, have no identifiable cause.

“We really can’t explain what’s going on,” said Kentz. “I’ve been in this industry for 43 years and I’ve always been able to find the cause of a problem… We will find cause. We will correct it. It’s critically important not only to you, but to me.”

In the third of three meetings held last week, Maui Electric President Sharon Suzuki personally apologized to Molokai customers for the outages.

“You folks have been very patient with us and we appreciate that,” she said.

Kentz said of the 16 outages, three incidents were due to environmental causes — such as high winds or trees falling on electric lines — and two were vehicle pole accidents. Another six incidents were by caused power supply problems, which he said has been corrected by the installation of new equipment last year, and the remaining two were the result of faulty electric insulators and conductors caused by factors like salt corrosion, which have also been updated.

Kentz said when they started having “major problems” last year, employees spent more than two days in helicopters checking lines, equipment and vegetation from the air. Then the Molokai crew spent a week doing a similar inspection from the ground. Their efforts only revealed minor problems that would not cause the outages, according to Kuntz.

Maui Electric spent more than $2 million on Molokai in 2013 on upgrades to utility poles, transformers, underground work in subdivisions and vegetation management, Kuntz said.

During this time, Maui Electric helped establish a “tri-utility task force” with electricity experts from Oahu and Hawaii Island with the goal of getting to the bottom of the issues, said Kutz.

He said the utility has now installed more than half a dozen “fault indicators” on the Molokai electric grid — instrumentation that will allow employees on Maui to remotely track and evaluate problems on the circuits. Two Maui inspectors spent three days on Molokai evaluating the entire system, and Maui Electric has brought in mechanics, technicians, experts — anything they can think of, said Kentz.
Yet, despite all efforts, the outages persist.

“Our goals are safety, reliability and customer service,” explained Kentz. “Two of those we have not done a good job on in 2013 and the first part of 2014 on Molokai, and that bothers me… We are working hard to change that.”

Maui Electric’s Supervisor of Renewable Energy, Steven Rymsha, said the problems do not lie with the high number of solar panels installed on the island — which have been said to cause reliability issues — because most of the outages have been occurring at night.

Kentz said the next step will take place next week, when “one of the best experts” will inspect Maui Electric’s Molokai diesel generators to see if he can find anything wrong with the equipment. During this time, Kentz said additional crews will be on-island performing tests. While the company hopes this can be accomplished without additional loss of electricity, he gave residents a heads up about what will be taking place in case any testing results in a temporary power outage.

He also urged residents to invest in surge protectors to protect sensitive equipment like computers from drops in frequency that accompany power outages.

Resident Cheryl Corbiell said she knows of many people on Molokai who have had to replace an unusually high number of appliances in the past year and asked what responsibility Maui Electric would take for these losses.

Kentz said the grid is designed to “load shed” — or shut off circuits to different areas of the island — before the electric frequency drops so low as would damage appliances. In order to stabilize the entire island grid, load sheds allow power to be restored one section at a time, which is the quickest and most effective method to recover from an outage.

Appliance failure may be a result of how the electrical systems of individual homes are set up and whether they are grounded properly, according to Kentz. He added that there is a claims process residents can go through if they feel loss of appliances is the fault of the utility.

A giant battery that was proposed last year for Molokai as a joint effort between Maui Electric and University of Hawaii’s Hawaii Natural Energy Institute is scheduled to be installed at the end of this year, said Rymsha. The battery is designed to instantaneously provide energy to Molokai’s grid if one of the generators tripped off, resulting in a more stable power source and fewer outages.

Rymsha said Maui Electric is currently completing a five-month analysis to determine how the battery should be programmed to best serve the needs of the grid.

“It will definitely improve power quality on the grid – we just don’t know to what extent,” said Rymsha. “That’s what we’re trying to find out over the next 5 months.”

He said they plan to begin construction in October.

Attendees at last Thursday’s meeting at Kulana Oiwi also discussed the need for better communication of information regarding power outages.

“I work at the college, and we need to get best information possible to make decisions about whether to cancel classes [and other challenges],” said Corbiell. “[Or] sometimes we have to call around the island to try to find an area with power to relocate a meeting… It makes it kind of messy while we’re all waiting.”

Maui Electric representatives said residents can go the Maui County website and sign up for email or text notifications of outages, but said they would work to improve their communication system.

“We hear you loud and clear,” said Suzuki. “We’re going to work on getting better response so you can at least get info on the outage.”

In the meantime, Molokai crews continue to work hard to restore power as quickly as possible during outages at all hours of the day and night, and both utility officials and residents thanked them for their efforts.

“When you don’t have power, I know how important it is,” said Kuntz. “It’s my job to make sure you have it when you need it. I failed you. That’s why we’re working hard here to make it better for everybody.”


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