A postcard from Hawaii to the nation's capital

The mood at the second annual VERGE conference in Honolulu last week was upbeat about the future of clean energy, despite pushback on the U.S. mainland. Apparently, those committed to a clean energy agenda, including the private sector, are more motivated than ever to push forward with aggressive programs to bring renewables resources online. They aim to not only combat climate change but also create jobs.

Conference attendees clearly supported the supposition that clean energy is here to stay, no matter what might be unfolding in Washington, D.C. The proposed dismantling of the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan and recent withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement on climate change only seemed to serve as motivation to push forward even harder.

Hawaii is the first (and so far only) state to commit to a 100 percent renewable energy future. Gov. David Ige didn’t seem to blink in the face of counter currents flowing from the Trump administration. A confessed energy geek, he seemed to take particular delight in the fact that Hawaii has emerged as a key testing ground for bolstering commitments to infrastructure needed to integrate variable renewables for both power and transportation services. Because each island of Hawaii is its own separate electric grid control area and retail costs are high due to such a reliance upon imported sources of fossil fuel, Hawaii is in a unique spot. The economics in the state clearly favor renewable energy.

Even Connie Lau, CEO of Hawaiian Electric Industries, reported that all her investor-owned utilities brethren have bought into the clean energy agenda. If the administrative about-face on clean energy had occurred eight years ago, then the momentum for renewables and other clean energy may have been halted, but that time has passed. Previous government and industry investments have driven down the price of solar photovoltaic, wind and batteries while software innovation to manage such resources has scaled up.

Nevertheless, there are challenges in implementing aggressive clean energy goals. Just look at California, where the state is paying neighboring states to take excess solar production. Many models show that once one reaches 80 percent to 90 percent renewables penetration, the cost of integration can jump dramatically.

A key tool Hawaii will rely upon to reach its 100 percent renewable energy goal is to integrate devices such as energy storage into self-balancing distribution networks such as microgrids. As of now, over 90 megawatts of new energy storage devices has been authorized by state regulators to be installed among the Hawaiian islands, with the majority of that capacity, 70 MW, to be installed in Oahu.

I had the pleasure of helping to run a four-hour workshop on how to overcome challenges to developing a microgrid at VERGE with cutting edge microgrid market makers such as ENGIE and Spirae. I also moderated a session on how microgrids boost clean energy on islands, with featured speakers from ABB — which is pushing forward with a 134-MW microgrid designed to reach 50 percent renewable energy on the island of Aruba by 2020 — and representatives from Hawaii and the U.S. Navy.

Ironically, there still may be some room for collaboration between Hawaii and Washington in the clean energy space. As I noted in a previous blog, one area where the interests in promoting national security in the nation's capital and a clean energy agenda in Hawaii align is the microgrid space. Watch for a report on that topic later this year.