Weaving community engagement

Molokai poses unique challenges to realize renewable energy goals

Molokai educator Iolani Kuoha speaks as Maui Electric Co. panelists Mathew McNeff (from left) and Mahina Martin, along with moderator Sharon Suzuki, Maui Electric and Hawaii Electric Light president, look on Wednesday at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center. The group discussed Molokai’s unique, isolated grid during a morning event on the second day of the Hawaii Energy Conference and Exhibition. The Maui News / KEUHAULANI CERIZO

KAHULUI — Likening community engagement on Molokai to weaving a unique haku lei, Maui Electric Co. described its intentional, relationship-first approach to getting isolated island grids in Hawaii to 100 percent renewable energy.

The Hawaii Energy Conference and Exhibition morning panel discussion Thursday focused on operating isolated grids efficiently and resiliently, specifically in remote places such as Molokai, and the challenges that arise.

Presented by the nonprofit Maui Economic Development Board, the two-day event drew expert speakers to the Maui Arts & Cultural Center’s Castle Theater, where hundreds of energy professionals, students and enthusiasts attended multiple talks throughout the day.

With one of the highest average costs and lowest average daily use of electricity, Molokai is one of six isolated island grids in Hawaii.

The island has a population of about 8,000 people with about 4,000 Native Hawaiians, many of whom come from fourth-, fifth- and even seventh-generation families.

Having an identity rooted in Native Hawaiian culture is significant there, and any island changes have big impacts on the small community, according to panelist Iolani Kuoha, Molokai Middle School Hawaiian immersion teacher and STEMworks facilitator, who set the stage for the discussion by describing her island home. She said that although the four-district island is without traffic lights, big-box stores and fast-food restaurants, it is teeming with rich natural resources.

“We tend to learn how to be self-sufficient,” Kuoha said. “We were taught by our kupuna, our elders, how to survive, how to malama, how to care for our land and how to respect the aina, the ocean, and what it provides for you.”

Although the island is considered to be the last Hawaiian island, it also has the highest percentage of foreign ownership in the state, said Molokai resident Karen Holt via presentation video.

“We often don’t have a voice in important decision-making,” she said. “The community has to get a little feisty in order to be heard.”

The uniqueness of the environment, culture and community there requires a different approach for electric officials striving to reach statewide 100 percent renewable energy goals by 2045.

Panelist Mahina Martin, MECO government and community relations manager, said the company has a history of community engagement on Molokai, but within the last few years, the effort has increased. The company held 13 roundtable sessions, three of which were in schools, and gathered 475-plus comments among the island’s four districts.

The feedback helped advance renewable energy planning moves, she said.

“We moved forward with a process intended to create trust and respect and ultimately to create meaningful dialogue,” said Martin. “It was an opportunity to lay the foundation for inclusive planning and a great opportunity to demonstrate our willingness to work with the community.”

On the operational end, providing reliable service is an important aim for the company. It services 3,200 customers on Molokai, which is about 5 percent of Maui’s or 1 percent of Oahu’s customers, and the island has eight distribution circuits, according to panelist Mathew McNeff, MECO power supply director.

The annual peak load is between 5 to 6 megawatts and the minimum is about 1.5 MW.

“Historically, we would have seen our minimums at early-morning hours when most people are sleeping,” he said.

However, because the island has an “extremely high penetration of distributed PV — about 3 MW have been installed or have been approved to be installed — the minimum load is in the middle of the day, which poses challenges.

One solution? Partnering.

“We’re always looking to partner with different entities to try to mitigate some of the financial impacts to the customers,” McNeff said.

He added that the cost was brought down for customers, thanks to a partnership with Hawaii Natural Energy Institute to install a battery energy storage system as well as a load bank on Molokai.

MECO also offers two solar pilot programs launched in 2017 for Molokai customers who utilize storage technology as well as controllability to work with the grid at certain times. These pilot projects allowed customers waiting to install rooftop solar to move forward.

Also, community-based renewable energy projects give residential customers an option to benefit from a solar installation without having it on their roof or having to fund an entire system. These projects have their own terms separate from the utility, according to Shayna Decker, MECO communications manager.

The Public Utilities Commission approved Molokai’s first large-scale solar-plus-storage project, Moloka’i New Energy Partners, a 2.64-MW project with 3-MW battery storage system, in late July. The Chicago-based Half Moon Ventures company will sell power to MECO and was projected to be in service by the end of the year.

McNeff said electric vehicles are an attractive option for drivers on Molokai, who face about $5 per gallon gas prices. The company installed a fast charger for EVs, held workforce development talks for maintaining the vehicles and donated one to Maui Economic Opportunity on Molokai.

As MECO continues to move toward renewable energy goals, officials emphasized the importance of weaving elements of operational needs, community relations and new, creative approaches to challenges.

“In working with the Molokai community, we know it’s a constant weaving of what’s internal and what’s external,” Martin said. “It’s almost like a haku lei. . . . it’s done deliberately . . . and it’s also long-lasting, something that we want to be around for a while.

“Underneath is the weaving of it. It’s done not just skillfully but firmly to make sure the lei lasts a very, very long time. To me, that’s how we do business and how we do community engagement in Hawaii Nei.”

* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at kcerizo@mauinews.com.

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