Experts say energy storage is the future for solar power

Maui Tomorrow official says renewable efforts only keeping ‘pace with the population’

Rising Sun Solar co-owner Brad Albert (right) explains the growing need for energy storage alongside Jamie Cook, Maui Electric Co.’s director of renewable energy projects, during a panel on rooftop solar Thursday at Kaunoa Senior Center. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

PAIA — The end of incentive programs doesn’t mean the door has closed on rooftop solar, but customers and businesses will have to start relying more on the still-growing technology of energy storage, industry experts explained at a community forum Thursday night.

Held at the Kaunoa Senior Center in Paia, the forum took a community-focused look at Maui’s energy future. After the Public Utilities Commission rejected the merger between Hawaiian Electric Co. and Florida-based energy company NextEra over the summer, the state now has a little more clarity on the path to its goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2045, moderator Dick Mayer said.

But community involvement in this goal has become tougher since Maui Electric Co.’s net-metering program closed last October, and the customer-grid supply program hit its 5-megawatt capacity in June. Both gave customers credits for energy they sent to the grid.

Now, batteries are “the way forward for the grid,” said Brad Albert, co-owner of Rising Sun Solar.

“Industry-wide there’s a big transition going on,” Albert said. “Between the price of batteries coming down and what it can do for the grid, I think there’s a lot of opportunity.”

MECO’s customer self-supply program allows customers to install solar as long as they don’t export to the grid. However, the solar industry has had little time to adjust to the rising need for energy storage, and many companies are still working to create viable products. Rising Sun Solar, for example, has worked with Tesla and has a battery that Albert thinks will bring cost savings similar to the MECO programs.

“The issue today is that there is no compensation if you have a distributed battery for the energy services you could provide to the grid,” Albert said. “As soon as we create that incentive, I think we’ll have a lot more batteries to be installed. . . . Customers can be part of the solution.”

Stored energy could help residents in power outages, possibly bring energy to the grid in the future and reduce the need for fossil fuel, Albert said.

Mat McNeff, MECO power supply manager, said that “batteries are just now becoming more mature,” but are still expensive. MECO has branched out into storage projects over the years, including on Molokai and at its Wailea substation.

“We have batteries in our future plans, but . . . we anticipate costs are going to come down dramatically in the future, so we’re not at widespread deployment just yet,” McNeff said.

Despite the slew of solar installations, Maui Tomorrow Vice President Doug McLeod said that Maui has not made the rapid strides toward renewable energy that many imagine. MECO President Sharon Suzuki said that the utility hit 35 percent renewable energy at the end of 2015, up from 14 percent in 2008 and well on pace to meet the state’s goals.

But in the first and second quarters of 2016, Maui’s renewable energy was at 19 percent and 28.1 percent, respectively, McLeod said. That’s around the level it was in 1976, when the county’s electrical renewables were at 28.4 percent, he added. The seeming lack of growth is partly due to the rise in population, which is now three times what it was 40 years ago.

“All we’ve done is basically keep pace with the population,” McLeod explained. “When we talk about 100 percent renewables, we have to do it accommodating future growth, and lately we haven’t.”

Part of the problem is that the energy provided by Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. has been decreasing, McLeod said. When power generation from HC&S’ Puunene Mill shuts down at the end of the year, Maui will be forced to look elsewhere.

McNeff responded Friday that “I don’t think it’s accurate to say no progress has been made.” In the past, people have simply used whatever source of fuel was cheapest. Only recently have the state and the county started pushing for more renewables.

“Now we make the conscious effort to increase renewables and decrease our dependence on fossil fuels,” McNeff said. “Over the years, it wasn’t a priority.”

Changing Maui’s sources of electrical energy are just part of the big picture, Mayer pointed out during the forum. In Hawaii, 65 percent of the energy is used by cars, airplanes, ships and other modes of transportation. If the state were to convert to 100 percent renewable energy, two-thirds of its energy sector would not make the transition, he pointed out.

While the 100 percent by 2045 law does not include transportation, the county is looking at ways to encourage energy-efficient travel, Maui County Energy Commissioner Fred Redell said. One example is its partnership with MECO and Hitachi on the Jumpsmart Maui electric vehicle program. The county also is considering making its vehicle fleet entirely electric.

Jamie Cook, MECO director of renewable energy projects, said growing electric fleets could feed off the excess solar coming from the grid during the day.

“That’s really the renewable energy dream, is to power electric vehicles using actual renewable energy,” Cook said.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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