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A Bellwether for the Industry

Reflecting on our recent trip to Hawaii

Matt and I just got back from our latest trip to Hawaii. It was great reconnecting with colleagues and friends at Hawaii Natural Energy Institute, Hawaiian Electric Company, and the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission. We were there supporting HNEI’s ongoing electric policy and engineering research, as well as the utility’s Integrated Grid Planning efforts. It even included an impromptu interview on ThinkTech Hawaii, where you can learn more about or work in the state.

And while the brief respite from Upstate New York’s chill was much appreciated, that’s not what I enjoy most about these trips. Instead its the challenge that Hawaii’s power industry provides. Hawaii’s grids have been referred to as the laboratory for the industry and a “postcard from the future ” - but it goes beyond that. They are an ecosystem of technical and policy innovation. That is part of the reason why UtilityDive just awarded HECO as the 2019 Utility of the Year. So I figured I would share my top three reasons why my work in Hawaii - and other islands - is so exciting:

1. Island grids are self-reliant

Hawaii has all the common challenges of renewable integration, but more pronounced. The islands are relatively small, so renewable energy is sited close together, minimizing geographic diversity - so drops in wind and solar can be system-wide. Land is also scarce (especially on Oahu), so much of the renewable development has been distributed rooftop PV - which was historically uncontrollable and unobservable by the utility.

Hawaii is also made up of six isolated power grids with no interconnections to neighbors. That means each utility has to manage these challenges locally and without assistance from the utility next-door like most of the mainland grids. It also makes them low-inertia grids, where a disturbance - like a generator trip - can swing frequency much faster than the norms of the large, interconnected grids in North America and Europe. This means the grid has only a couple seconds to “catch” the system after an emergency event (and that time window is shortening). Check out our ESIG presentation on the topic for more info.

These unique characteristics make for challenging (and interesting) engineering, and affords novel technological opportunities.

2. The economics pencil out there first The economics for technological adoption are favorable because the high price of imported oil drives up the cost of fossil-based generation and places Hawaii years ahead on the economic break-even points for new technology. The state was an early adopter of wind energy and distributed rooftop-PV (it now ranks highest in the country for per-capita rooftop PV capacity), and is now at the forefront of new energy storage integration, demand response adoption, and new rate structures. If new technology is going to work anywhere - it will probably work in Hawaii first.

3. It’s not just about technical innovation

The power industry in Hawaii isn’t just about innovation in new technology, but also innovation in policy and procurement. The state was the first in the country to adopt a 100% renewable energy target - something that is becoming commonplace. HECO’s recent industry-leading 262 MW solar+storage procurement was also novel - it bundled hybrid projects in single fixed monthly payment and gave the utility dispatch rights for the assets. It completely decoupled renewable energy from $/MWh payments! While it may not be perfect, I think the industry will be shifting to this type of procurement in the future, as value of renewables will be less about energy, and more about grid services. The next procurement will procure grid services from both utility-scale projects, demand response, and DERs simultaneously!

For these reasons Hawaii is a bellwether for the electric power industry. If you want to know what things could look like in your grid 10-years from now, keep an eye on Hawaii. I can’t wait to see what happens next and I’m glad to be along for the ride.

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