Navigant Research Blog

On Oahu, A Glimpse of Energy’s Future

Peter Asmus — August 16, 2012

Best known as the setting of Pearl Harbor, Diamond Head, and Hawaii Five-O, Oahu is the most densely populated of the Hawaiian Islands.  Judging from my recent visit, it’s also a window into our collective energy future – and the challenges that still lie ahead.

I’ve never seen so many solar hot water systems in my life.  They literally cover nearly every rooftop in many neighborhoods.  This simple, low-cost technology – which is virtually nonexistent in the continental United States – makes inherent sense on an island where the sun shines throughout the year, heating needs are minimal, and the cost of electricity is sky-high due to reliance upon imported oil.  There’s growing policy support for solar water heating in a few other states, such as California, but much more could be done if this option was better integrated into housing structures up front.

With solar photovoltaics (PV) costs dropping dramatically, Hawaii is also witnessing a major boom in this industry.  So far in Hawaii this year, the installations of solar PV have tripled the pace of last year, which had doubled in the previous year, which had also doubled the year before that.  Interestingly, the state utility – HECO – imposes grid interconnection studies fees upon system owners in areas of the power grid when penetrations exceed 15%.  Fortunately, this threshold does not apply to residential users.  At present, 49 of Oahu’s 469 circuits exceed 15% solar PV penetration.  Decent net metering and feed-in tariffs, along with state and federal tax credits, are helping fuel the boom.

Bird Tracking

The big news on Oahu is not about solar energy, though; it’s about wind power.  While distributed solar power is on the rise, plans for a 400 megawatt (MW) wind farm to be developed on one of the smaller islands of Lanai or Molokai, to provide power to Oahu via undersea cables, have been thwarted to date.

Another blow to wind power in the Aloha State came when an existing wind farm on Oahu’s North Shore was shut down for weeks by a fire started when a lead acid battery blew up.

Companies are pushing ahead anyway.  First Wind, a private developer, is pushing innovation in a state where energy storage makes economic sense due to the small size of the regional island power grid.  During my visit the local newspaper reported that the company has hired a three-year old dog named “Honey” to help track down dead birds killed by the company’s wind farm.  It’s hoped that Honey will collect carcasses in order build a better database to assess the real impacts these renewable energy facilities have on local wildlife.  Now that’s a savvy PR move.

Also moving forward is Xtreme Power.  Rather than focusing on sexy advanced batteries like lithium ion, the company has developed a business model for advanced, large-scale, smart lead acid battery systems connected to long distance distribution feeder lines.  Xtreme and First Wind are proving that even though one battery exploded there is no reason to panic, or to believe that the islands should just keep burning pricey and dirty fossil fuels.  Do we stop driving cars because a gas tank explodes and someone gets hurt?

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