Calif. energy official ‘chief architect’ for Lanai project

The director of the Strategic Energy Initiatives at the University of California San Diego, who has lived on Oahu and Midway Island and has ties to the University of Hawaii Maui College, has been selected to design Lana’i Resorts’ electricity microgrid and desalination plant.

In an interview with The Maui News on Friday, Byron Washom, who described his role as the “chief architect” of the project, expects to have the designs and plans completed before December.

A joint news release by UC San Diego and Lana’i Co. on Friday said that Washom will design the microgrid that will be powered by renewable energy sources and the desalination plant that will augment the island’s supply of fresh water.

He said in the phone interview that all sources of renewable energy, including solar and wind, storage capacity and reshaping demand would be the pillars of the microgrid that will encompass all of the more than 88,000 acres – or 97 percent of the island – held by Lana’i Co., which was purchased by Oracle’s Larry Ellison.

Wind power is a touchy subject on Lanai with the community divided by the proposed 200-megawatt Big Wind project in northwest Lanai that would take power generated to Oahu via an undersea cable.

Washom would not rule out wind as a renewable energy source, but he said that Lanai’s plans would have wind power on a “community scale.”

“Any community scale wind would be for the Lanai community,” he said, adding that the wind power comes “in all shapes and sizes” from residential to larger-scale projects.

UC San Diego has granted Washom a 40 percent reduction in his appointment for nine months so that he can pursue this project, the news release said. He still will oversee the entire portfolio of funded research activities on the microgrid at UC San Diego, which generates more than 90 percent of the campus’ electricity.

Washom said that the university uses renewables such as 1.5 megawatts of solar power, methane gas from wastewater, gas turbines, fuel cells and storage systems.

He discounted talk of using “experimental” approaches to power the Lanai microgrid. At UC San Diego, school officials are not doing a “whimsical experiment” to produce electricity, he said. The microgrid has to be reliable because it powers a hospital and research facilities.

In fact, the Lanai system will be “downsizing” for Washom. The award-winning UC San Diego microgrid handles 42 megawatts – which is “10 times the energy size of the entire energy of Lanai,” he said. Lanai’s grid currently handles 4 megawatts.

Washom said those planning Lanai’s power grid are going to look at existing sources of renewable energy and develop some additional sources, building energy storage devices and “reshaping demand load.”

The latter technique involves matching energy production with use, he said. For example, solar power is produced in abundance during the day but peak consumption is during the evening hours. For Lanai, this could mean changing water pumping times to peak power production hours.

When asked if this might mean a change in individual habits, Washom replied that when it comes to energy conservation, “we all have room for improvement.”

“By matching the load with availability of supply you can become much more efficient,” he continued.

As for energy storage, there are three potential methods. Pumped hydro, which involves pumping water uphill to a tank when excess energy is being produced and releasing the water downhill to turn turbines to produce electricity during off-production times. Another similar method involves storing compressed air in a tank during peak production hours and releasing the air to turn turbines during lower-production periods.

The third method is energy-storing batteries, he said.

“Thinking akamai is really what it is all about,” Washom said.

Desalination has been incorporated into his planning because the process is “energy intensive,” he said. The microgrid needs to be able to supply reliable electricity to the plant.

The plant will be supplied by brackish water wells, which have no agricultural value, he said. Using reverse osmosis, the brackish water will go through a membrane with potable water resulting from the process.

Washom is familiar with the islands, having lived on Oahu and Midway Island. His dad was stationed on the atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, a military outpost during World War II and the namesake of a pivotal sea battle in the war. He was 7 years old and lived there for more than a year.

“That’s where I got my sustainability ethic,” Washom said. “As a boy, I lived on diesel generation and desalination. We only had two cars on the island.”

He returned to Midway in 2011 and said that his house is still there. Nothing much has changed, he added.

It was a Maui connection – through the University of Hawaii Maui College – that led to him to garner his current assignment. UC San Diego and UH-Maui College were collaborating on a microgrid at the Kahului campus.

UH-Maui College Provost Clyde Sakamoto introduced Washom to Lana’i Co. officials in February. He began working on this project the next month.

He views his selection as “chief architect” of Lana’i Co.’s bold and innovative microgrid project as “still somewhat overwhelming.”

“Being from Hawaii, I really regard this opportunity as my kuleana,” he said. “It is a very, very rare opportunity.”

* Lee Imada can be reached at