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Virtual power plant coming to Maui and other islands

Energy Conference covers new green energy program with HECO

Rising Sun co-owner Brad Albert describes the capabilities of a Tesla Powerwall lithium ion battery system during the dedication of Maui’s first solar-plus-storage system in October 2016. A new project to create a virtual power plant on Maui would draw on solar-powered batteries across thousands of homes. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

A newer, greener way of thinking about power plants is about to hit home for thousands of residents on Maui, Oahu and Hawaii island.

By installing behind-the-meter, solar-powered home batteries, 6,000 homeowners may provide the real estate for an aggregated virtual power plant, which promises to drop Hawaiian Electric Co. bills for participants, according to energy officials.

“Put simply, a virtual power plant is an an aggregated network of distributed solar and energy storage resources that can be centrally controlled by a grid operator and an aggregator instead, or in the place of, a traditional centralized power plant,” Swell Energy Inc. CEO Suleman Khan said during the keynote speech at Hawaii Energy Conference on Tuesday morning.

Typically held in person on Maui prior to the pandemic, the Hawaii Energy Conference, now in its eighth year, gathers regional and national experts on energy policy, strategies, leadership and innovation to present for hundreds of attendees across various industries. This year’s virtual event kicked off Tuesday and continues Thursday.

In January, the state Public Utilities Commission approved the $25 million contract for Swell Energy, a California-based energy and grid services provider, to partner with Hawaiian Electric for the delivery of various grid services.

Slated to begin this summer, the program will deliver more than 25 megawatts of solar power paired with over 80 MW of batteries and 100 megawatt hours of stored energy, delivering capacity and frequency response to the three island grids while also reducing bills for participating customers.

“The innovative green energy program will augment Hawaiian Electric’s energy supply by relieving the grid of excess renewable energy as production spikes, reducing peak demand and providing 24/7 fast frequency response to balance the grid,” according to Swell Energy’s website. “The renewable energy storage systems will collectively respond to grid needs dynamically, moment to moment.”

Swell Energy will be the administrator and operator of a virtual power plant that belongs to the islands, he said. Hawaiian Electric will pay homeowners directly for enrolling in the program and Swell Energy will receive a virtual power plant development and management fee.

“We love this model,” he said. “We like it a lot because you can see a direct benefit to the homeowners that’s very well defined from the get-go, and homeowners have a very clear sense of what their participation will bring them.”

Virtual power plants, which may also be called distributed power plants, help in building a decarbonized, decentralized and digitized grid in a way that benefits consumers, utilities and financiers at the same time, Khan said.

They also allow consumers to participate in a two-way transactive process of generating and consuming energy to and from the grid.

Not only do virtual power plants curb the need for centralized power plants, they preserve open space and habitat, and provide equitable solutions for people of all socioeconomic backgrounds, he added.

“If we all agree that the energy circumstance in Hawaii requires innovative solutions, then we must acknowledge that these distributed energy resources aggregated in the form of virtual power plants can help ensure that distributed energy resources work together for the greater good of the grid and their various communities and service,” Khan said.

With Hawaii’s goal of achieving 100 percent clean energy by 2045, the Aloha State is fertile ground for virtual power plants, Khan said. He lauded Hawaii as a front-runner in global renewable energy transition and praised the state for leading the nation in rooftop solar adoption where more than 30 percent of single-family homes have rooftop solar.

Hawaii already has about a dozen pilot and broad-scale launches for virtual power plants, Khan said. Swell Energy has five virtual power plant programs with more coming in the next several quarters.

Hawaii’s program is slated to begin this summer, according to Hawaiian Electric, and homeowners may request updates on future announcements on Swell Energy’s website, www.swellenergy.com.

Presented by Maui Economic Development Board and supported by the County of Maui Office of Economic Development, the Hawaii Energy Conference this year is exploring the “Energy Transition in Hawaii: Focus on investments in people and projects.”

The two-day online event features keynotes, panel discussions, interviews, showcases and exhibits.

Thursday will kick off with Mark Toney of The Utility Reform Network (TURN) with his talk, “Stop Overpaying for Solar: And Other Pathways to Affordable Bills.”

Participation has grown from 281 participants the first year to 413 in 2019. In 2020 the conference went virtual due to COVID-19, and attendance reached 649.

For more information, visit HawaiiEnergyConference.com.

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

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