Maui Energy Conference gets under way

Batteries next new hot area of growth for renewables

JON YOSHIMURA, Storage plays key role

KAHULUI – When companies first began installing rooftop solar in Hawaii, there was some pushback from government agencies who were worried about the systems spontaneously catching fire, said Jon Yoshimura, who develops microgrids and storage projects for Tesla.

Now that rooftop solar has caught on, companies are seeing the same apprehension to batteries.

“They really believe that these things are going to blow up and cause all kinds of fires across the state,” Yoshimura said.

But with the growth in battery technology and the role that storage could play in a state overwhelmed by excess solar power, Yoshimura believes that “five years from now, I’m not going to be talking about this problem, because it’s just going to be obvious to everyone that these products are safe.”

Yoshimura was speaking at the annual Maui Energy Conference, which kicked off Wednesday at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center. Experts from Hawaii and around the country touched on issues within the energy industry, focusing on how the move away from fossil fuels can create business opportunities in the community.

Energy storage is one of those opportunities, and one that residents can have a hand in.

“Hopefully as prices (for storage systems) continue to drop, more people will begin to look at the advantages and possibly adopt it,” said Walter Enomoto, energy adviser for Hawaii Energy. “It’s exciting. . . . This is the next big wave in the energy field.”

From December 2012 to December 2017, the number of Hawaiian Electric Industries customers with photovoltaic systems has gone from 22,550 to 74,184 statewide. Maui Electric Co. customers (who are included in those numbers) went from 3,105 to 12,021 systems during the same time period.

But energy grids couldn’t absorb all the customer-generated power. In 2015, the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission shut down the net metering program, which had allowed customers to get generous credits for sending excess energy to the grid.

That opened the door to more battery installation.

“The success of solar and other renewables really has brought us to the point where storage is becoming an integral part of any project,” Yoshimura said.

On Oahu, where most rooftop systems are located, building permits related to residential solar and battery skyrocketed from 40 in 2016 to 731 in 2017, said Eugene Tian, chief economist for the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.

And, recently, the U.S. hit a milestone, surpassing one gigawatt-hour of installed storage nationwide. While it’s small compared to solar or wind installations, it’s a huge step, said Mark Stout, vice president of project development for the Amber Kinetics. Stout spoke on a panel with Yoshimura, Boris Von Bormann of Mercedes-Benz Energy Americas and Kelly Speakes-Backman of the Energy Storage Association.

“As the industry scales up, that’s driving a lot of innovation and squeezing costs out,” said Stout, whose California-based company makes storage systems for commercial and industrial customers.

Still, the cost of a battery can set a person back some $7,000, which is how much a Tesla Power Wall costs. But combined with rooftop solar, it can save money in the long run, Yoshimura said.

“You will be able to watch the Oscars or the Super Bowl without interruption, just in case there might be some sort of problem,” he said. “It’s good if you have a hobby like raising saltwater fish that need electricity all the time, or a medical condition that you really need to have electricity at home.”

Enomoto said a battery system could also be useful for someone living Upcountry or in Haiku, where downed trees cause power outages from time to time.

On Molokai, the county’s first grid-scale solar and battery energy storage system could be running by 2019. Molokai New Energy Partners has proposed a 2.74 megawatt solar farm a 3 MW battery storage system on 37 acres, which would supply about 40 percent of the island’s energy needs. In February, MECO signed an agreement to purchase power from the project, which still needs commission approval. MECO filed an application for a power purchase agreement with the PUC earlier this month.

MECO President Sharon Suzuki said that storage helps both residents and the utility.

“If they can charge the battery with PV during the day and discharge it during night during the peak (hours), that’ll help us reduce the peak,” she said. “The customer being able to further reduce demand for electricity helps us keep the grid in balance.”

Whether the cost is worth it, that’s up to the customer, she said.

In January, President Donald Trump announced plans to impose 30 percent tariffs on imported solar panels. Tian was asked how that could impact Hawaii, which has a small manufacturing industry and ships in many panels from other places.

“It may have implications on the price of the panels, and I think that will have some impact, but I don’t expect the impact is a huge one,” he said.

As Hawaii pushes toward 100 percent renewable energy by 2045, Stout said the need for energy storage “is accelerated.”

“You can either turn off the solar and let it go to waste, or you can store it and shift to evening when the sun’s gone down and you still need the power,” he said. “There’s not one silver bullet (to the 100 percent goal), but storage has got a big role.”

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

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