VERGE Hawaii highlighted how 'resilience' is changing the narrative
This article was sponsored by Ulupono Initiative.
Hawaii is known for sun, surf and the "aloha" spirit — and in the energy world, as a progressive place that has set landmark goals of 100 percent renewable energy for the state and other clean transportation goals for its counties. In the era of climate change, the success of clean energy will depend on whether the grid architecture is resilient.
As an island state, Hawaii knows all too well the destructive force of our planet, based on past experiences with Hurricanes Iwa (1982) and Iniki (1992) that affected multiple islands. Just this year alone, our state has endured a string of bad weather conditions — from heavy rain-induced flooding on Kauai and Oahu in April, to back-to-back major storms in August (Hurricane Lane) and September (Tropical Storm Olivia).
Lane showed us that a major hurricane could occur at any time, becoming one of only two recorded Category 5 hurricanes to pass within 350 miles of the state. Although the storm weakened as it drew along the Islands and was, for the most part, considered a near miss, Lane left lasting effects: heavy downpours caused widespread flooding, evacuations and thoroughfare closures on Hawaii Island, and many blame the storm winds with helping fan the flames of the large brush fire in West Maui that damaged homes and scorched thousands of acres.
Hawaii isn’t alone — at the time of writing this article, we are witnessing the shattering impacts of Hurricane Florence on the Carolinas and Typhoon Mangkhut on the Philippines and China. We also remember the devastation Hurricane Maria had on Puerto Rico a year ago. What happened in Puerto Rico was a stark reminder of Hawaii’s own vulnerability and made us question how well we would recover after the next natural disaster. Can we do better?
A frank discussion
At the VERGE Hawaii clean energy summit in June, it was an honor to participate in a plenary discussion that brought together national and Hawaii experts working with me on Puerto Rico’s future electrical system. I was joined on the panel, "Rebuilding for Resilience — Lessons from Puerto Rico and Beyond," by fellow members of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority Transformation Advisory Council: Harley "Rick" Eckert from the Kauai Island Utility Cooperative and Sanjay Bose from New York utility Con Edison.
On the main stage, I shared how Hurricane Maria exposed the fragility of Puerto Rico’s infrastructure in the face of a Category 5 storm. As Puerto Rico is an island community like Hawaii, we should all pay attention to the fact that the storm caused the entire electric grid to fail, disrupted the highway and road network and severely limited access to clean drinking water.
What happened in Puerto Rico will happen here. We are not doing the type of joint planning we need. For example, Honolulu’s Board of Water Supply only has backup power supply for seven of its 20 major pumps serving the island of Oahu. In the event of a natural disaster, this could result in a full-scale health crisis.
There is good news — technology has advanced. There are now more commercially viable proposals for microgrids and minigrids that can withstand severe events but also make financial sense from provider and user perspectives. In about five years, there will be a pivot point when the grid becomes the generation source and not the backbone. It will be exciting.
Making the financing work for clean energy projects was likewise a hot topic at VERGE Hawaii. Attendees were drawn to another panel discussion, "Bridging the Financing Gap for Clean Energy," filling the conference room eager to discuss financing challenges as, in terms one panelist put it, "Hawaii creeps closer to its 100 percent renewables goals."
My colleague, Murray Clay, who serves as Ulupono Initiative’s managing partner, observed that the market’s commitment to clean energy appears to be sound. As evidence, one need only look to recent history: when President Donald Trump declared last year the United States would exit the Paris climate deal, many of America’s largest corporations responded by committing to the agreement anyway, aiming to pursue cleaner energy and reduce emissions on their own because it made good business sense.
Helping matters is that a major transformation is underway in the area of finance, not just as it applies to clean energy but everywhere. Technology is "disrupting" and in a very good way, as the panelists explained. For example, options provided by PayPal and crowd-funding were not even possible 10 years ago. Considering that about 64 percent of clean energy operations consist of "soft costs," simple enhancements to technology offer great opportunities to streamline and reduce overhead.
There is also room for improvement in the areas of addressing the complexities and delays in permitting process and in electric utility procurement of new energy resources, as well as establishing time limitations on bilateral power purchase agreement negotiations. To illustrate how these factors can extend the time it takes to implement projects, Clay shared how Ulupono’s supportive role in the Honolulu Seawater Air Conditioning project began years ago as a minority investor, but today the firm is a majority investor as others have come and gone. One reason, Clay said, is that other investors may not have foreseen how long it takes for projects in Hawaii to move forward.
Transformation requires two things — perseverance and collaboration. For now, everyone is managing their particular kuleana (one’s personal sense of responsibility), but we need to have conversations across all areas. Resilience changes the narrative between utility and the consumer; it puts us back in alignment.