Solar shines bright on Maui’s energy future

Planning ongoing for large-scale Ulupalakua, Central Maui projects

Maui’s second utility-scale solar project, Ku‘ia Solar in West Maui, went online Oct. 4. During the Kula meeting, residents pointed out that the Ku‘ia project is very visible, and that a much larger project like Innergex’s would dominate even more of the landscape. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

In May and October, Kenyon Energy powered up Maui’s first two large-scale solar projects, both capable of each generating 2.87 megawatts of solar power for the island’s grid.

The projects were the latest developments in Maui County’s push towards total renewable energy, and with two more projects in the wings — considerably bigger and with ample amounts of battery storage — the era of large-scale solar on Maui may just be getting started.

Canadian-based Innergex Renewables USA is proposing a 15-megawatt solar and 60-megawatt-hour battery storage system on 150 to 200 acres of Ulupalakua Ranch land, while Colorado-based AES Distributed Energy is proposing a 60-MW solar and 240-MWh battery project on as much as 500 acres of old Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. fields in Central Maui.

Eddie Park, business development manager for Innergex Renewables, said it’s “unprecedented” for a battery of this size to be paired with a solar project of this size.

“The size of this battery actually allows (it) to capture the entire output of the array during the daytime and actually dispatch it fully for a period of four hours when the utility needs it or during the afternoon or evening hours,” Park said Wednesday night during a Kula Community Association meeting.

The rise of these projects isn’t surprising to those who track the renewable energy industry, where the commercial price of wind, solar and battery storage have “come down dramatically,” said Leon Roose, specialist with the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute and chief technologist for GridSTART, which focuses on helping communities integrate renewable energy into their grids.

Roose said projects like the ones proposed on Maui may start to become the norm.

“I think that’s kind of this next phase of development with solar,” Roose said Thursday. “You’re going to start seeing it coming in coupled with storage. The projects that have come on up to this point, less storage, if any, was needed.”

Maui is a little different from other islands, Roose said. Until now, the island’s solar supply has come mostly from distributed sources, or rooftop solar. Other places, like Kauai, have very little rooftop solar and rely more on a big central plant. Roose said there’s “some merit in the big ones.” For the utility, it’s easier to control large, centralized systems as compared to thousands of smaller rooftop panels spread out across the island — though Roose didn’t think one system was necessarily better than the other.

Frederick Redell, Maui County energy commissioner, said that there’s another advantage to the large-scale projects.

“One of the big benefits of large-scale renewable energy, especially when the prices are low, is it benefits every single person on the grid,” Redell said. “Instead of just the benefit going to an individual who does distributed resources (rooftop solar) . . . or is wealthy enough that rates don’t impact them so much.”

But while many people agree that solar is good for Maui, others have expressed concern as projects continue to pop up around the island. During the Kula meeting, residents pointed out that the 2.87-MW Ku’ia Solar project that went online in Lahaina in October is very visible, and that a much larger project like Innergex’s would dominate even more of the landscape.

Doug McLeod, who runs DKK Energy Services and is a consultant for the Ulupalakua project, said that “it’s definitely part of our design thinking to avoid areas where there’s a big slope.” The project would be located just above Maui Meadows and would be visible from certain parts of South Maui and Upcountry, depending on trees and brush in the area. He pointed out that while the West Maui project may have a visual impact, its similar-sized counterpart in Kihei does not “because it was done down low.”

Roose and Redell said these are issues the community will need to decide as more solar projects arise — what trade-offs to make and how best to balance resources as Hawaii pushes toward its goal of 100 percent renewable energy. New technologies also may come up along the way, and solar would not be the only energy source.

“It’s going to take an interesting mix,” Redell said. “Even if you do biofuels, farming for the purpose of biofuels takes up a lot of ag land for the purpose of creating fuel. . . . All of these choices are definitely hard choices that the community still needs to be an active part of.”

Roose said that the these issues exist “with any kind of development.”

“You have to deal with the legitimate concerns of the community and the environment, which means view planes and competing uses of land,” Roose said. “Will they (solar projects) take up a footprint of land? Absolutely. Will people have to see them? Absolutely. . . . That’s just the nature of the beast. But I’m hopeful, personally, that these projects can move forward if done responsibly and respectfully to the environment and to the community. And I think in the long run, there’s more benefits than downsides.”

That includes less reliance on fossil fuels and cheaper rates. MECO charges customers 34 cents per kilowatt-hour, MECO spokeswoman Shayna Decker said. The Innergex solar and battery project could sell power to the utility for less than 11 cents/kWh, though it’s unclear at this point how much that would impact the average bill.

“We’re currently in negotiations with the developers, and pricing and potential bill impact remains confidential,” Decker said. “But generally speaking, these large-scale solar and battery projects will accelerate our renewable energy efforts at some of the lowest prices we’ve seen to date.”

Decker added that MECO requires developers to reach out to the community, and that residents will have a chance to voice comments and concerns. Those will be filed with the state Public Utilities Commission as part of the project review process.

The projects remain in the early planning stages. Both companies still need to finalize a 25-year power purchase agreement with MECO.

Innergex said the goal is to start construction on the 15-MW project in 2021 and bring it online by 2022. AES has said its 60-MW project would start construction in 2020 and begin operation in 2021 or 2022. A meeting also was held Thursday night at Pomaikai Elementary to discuss the 60-MW solar project.

To put in perspective how much the projects would add to Maui’s current solar capacity, McLeod, a former Maui County energy commissioner, explained that there is currently about 100 MW of solar installed on island. The 15-MW Innergex project would add 15 percent to everything that’s been installed already, he said. MECO’s maximum load, which it doesn’t always reach, is 200 megawatts.

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

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