MECO on track to beat renewable energy goals

State aims to be 100 percent by 2045

Maui Electric Co. President Sharon Suzuki speaks to about 75 people Thursday night during a community discussion at the University of Hawaii Maui College. The Maui News / CHRIS SUGIDONO photo

KAHULUI — Maui Electric Co. is marching toward 100 percent renewable energy for Maui County, and that will come without an undersea interisland cable, utility President Sharon Suzuki told about 75 people during a community discussion Thursday night at the University of Hawaii Maui College.

Maui County residents have told MECO “very loud and clear” that communities don’t support an undersea cable to transmit electricity among islands, and there are no plans for that project, she said.

“We can reach 100 percent without that project,” she said.

MECO’s updated Power Supply Improvement Plan calls for Molokai to reach the renewable energy benchmark by 2020, with Lanai completing it by 2030 and Maui by 2040. The plan submitted to the state Public Utilities Commission in December is “aggressive” and would beat of the state’s goal of relying 100 percent on renewable energy by 2045, Suzuki said.

“It’s going to take a lot of work,” she said. “The challenge is balancing how to get to that, while maintaining a reliable service to all of you and delivering affordable rates. It’s a balancing act. We want to be ready to make the best decisions we can without committing ourselves to long-term high prices.”

Todd Kanja, general manager of Maui Electric Co.’s system planning, answers questions Thursday night during a community discussion at the University of Hawaii Maui College. The Maui News / CHRIS SUGIDONO photo

Some of the utility’s plans include eliminating fossil fuel use, not crowding out future renewable technologies and bringing renewable value to all customers. Officials said they have been reducing the number of generators that must stay on all the time, lowering the minimum output of generators when they are on, as well as increasing automation and the flexibility of generators.

Last month, MECO asked the Public Utilities Commission to start the process to seek new renewable energy generation on the three islands that would target renewable energy projects that can be in service by the end of 2020.

Those projects could add to Molokai’s strong wind and solar energy output. Biofuel, though, will be used to fill the gaps if it cannot reach its 100 percent mark.

Power Supply Manager Mat McNeff said local biofuel is not as volatile as foreign fossil fuels and generators can operate solely on it. The Maalaea Power Plant, the largest in the county, was able to run 100 percent on biofuel about a decade ago, he said.

The utility will need to test biofuel on the Molokai plant, McNeff said.

For the past year, the island has been oversaturated with photovoltaic panels, and MECO has put a temporary hold on interconnecting additional PV panels that are not controllable by the utility. The company has introduced pilot programs to address the problem and is looking at relying on storage batteries owned by residents.

“The challenge is to minimize that impact to Molokai customers,” Suzuki said. “We want to test new technologies to prove them out and use Molokai as a showcase.”

Audience members asked how their electric bills would change during the transition toward renewables and whether there would be loss of jobs. One questioned how many customers the company would have as residents move toward solar energy.

Suzuki said she does not foresee any loss of jobs, but some employees may need to be retrained in new technologies. She added that electricity rates would increase initially with new infrastructure and investment, but they would fall over time as the transition to renewable technologies gathers momentum and there’s predictable pricing.

As for the future of the company’s customers, she said “customers want the reliability of service.

“Although they may be able to generate a lot of electricity to meet their needs, they still want to be interconnected and we certainly want them to be because we want to retain them as a customer,” she said. “What we want is to be able to price it right so the fixed costs to maintain the system aren’t borne by only the people who cannot afford to do that. We as a public utility have a very special obligation that we take seriously, which is to serve all customers who would like electricity.”

Former Maui County energy commissioner Doug McLeod, vice president of Maui Tomorrow, told audience members that the company’s public filing to the PUC redacts its analysis on whether it would be cost-effective for customers to leave the grid.

Maui Tomorrow co-hosted the energy panel discussion with Maui Electric.

While many pilot programs are in place, audience members wondered when MECO’s new approach for renewable energy would start. The company recently asked for three diesel engines to assist operations.

“The planning starts now,” said Todd Kanja, general manager of system planning, while noting that the process will take time. “We want to move as quickly as possible.”

McNeff said that the loss of power from Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar placed an urgent need on power generation, and the diesel units were “able to meet the timeline we needed.” He noted, though, that the company’s request for new diesel engines is not the only solution.

“Diesel engines are only temporary until we can install permanent renewable generation,” he said. “As soon as we don’t need those units, we’ll get rid of them.”

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at csugidono@mauinews.com.


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