Foundation phase for a two-way power grid approved by PUC

The state Public Utilities Commission approved a first step in Hawaiian Electric Cos. effort to transform its one-way power supply grid into a two-way power and information platform, the utility announced Wednesday.

The first phase of the four-year, $86.3 million plan that will begin later this year in the utility’s three subsidiaries, including Maui Electric Co., will help expand the amount of private rooftop solar that the utility can accept, especially on saturated circuits, by deploying advanced meters that will help monitor and manage the grid. The advanced meters also can help customers manage and monitor their individual energy use through an online energy portal, the HECO news release said.

Ultimately, this will reduce the utility’s reliance on fossil fuels.

Other highlights of the first phase include:

• Launch of a meter data management system that collects and stores data received from the advanced meters.

• Implementation of a telecommunications network that enables the communication path for both advanced meters and field devices for distribution sensing, control and automation. Programs now rely only on cellular service that isn’t available in all areas.

• Setting the foundation for overlaying digital intelligence and automation to create a more efficient, resilient electric system capable of utilizing all grid-connected resources.

The monthly cost of the first phase to the typical residential customer on Maui will be 34 cents; and on Molokai and Lanai, 27 cents.

Jim Kelly, vice president of corporate relations for HECO, explained that the current grid “is very much an analog system.”

“We want it to become a digital system,” Kelly said Wednesday at the Hawaii Energy Conference at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center. It’s about running the grid as “efficiently and intelligently as possible.”

The data-gathering capabilities at the circuit level of the initial enhancements will allow the utility “to see what’s going on . . . on a neighborhood level,” he said. This data will allow for finer, localized assessments, which will mean accommodating more rooftop solar in the neighborhood while maintaining the stability of the grid.

Data collection and management also will allow the utility to identify outages before the customer can call them in, Kelly said.

Some customers have raised health and privacy issues with technology used in advanced meters.

“We just want to know,” he said. “We don’t want to . . . get into your business.”

Installation will remain voluntary, though the goal eventually will be to have everyone on advanced meters, he said. The news release said that the utility seeks to incorporate evolving sophisticated energy management tools, such as demand response.

The current one-way grid with the utility supplying power to customers has been the status quo since Thomas Edison, Kelly noted. The utility increases or decreases its supply of power to meet demand at every moment in time. With a two-way grid, the utility could manage demand, too, by turning off power-using devices in businesses and homes.

While the first phase will involve all HECO subsidiaries, including MECO in Maui County, the focus initially will be on solar-saturated segments of the grid, especially on Oahu, Kelly indicated.

To read the companies’ Grid Modernization Strategy, go to www.hawaiianelectric.com/gridmod; www.mauielectric.com/gridmod; or www.hawaiielectriclight.com/gridmod.

* Lee Imada can be reached at leeimada@mauinews.com.