Hakai Magazine

Coastal science and societies

illustration of palm trees and solar panels
Illustration by Sébastien Thibault

The Hot Mess of Hawai‘i’s Renewable Power Push

Can the small Hawaiian island of Moloka‘i and its utility get along well enough to teach the rest of the world how to get off fossil-fueled electricity?

Authored by

by Peter Fairley

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Moloka‘i is a bastion of sanity and understatement at the center of the Hawaiian archipelago. Just 40 kilometers of open water away from O‘ahu, the island is a far cry from Honolulu’s hectic tiki bars and tourists, universities, cargo yards, and warships. On Moloka‘i, agriculture and subsistence hunting and fishing still sustain many of the 7,500 or so residents, and visitors are few. There are no traffic lights, and the roadsides are peppered with hand-painted signs extolling Indigenous rights and rejecting a litany of perceived intrusions from pesticides and cruise ships to short-term vacation rentals and GMOs. The few tourists who do make the hop over rank mailing a coconut home as their top experience.

On the surface, nothing about this bucolic place suggests it as the central hub around which a cleaner, high-tech electrical future might be built. Yet the island could serve as a model for Hawai‘i as the state navigates transitioning its entire power supply to renewable sources.

Honolulu-based Hawaiian Electric, the investor-owned utility that controls Moloka‘i’s grid, must meet a mandate from the state legislature to convert the five island grids it operates to 100 percent renewable energy by 2045. No utility on Earth knows for sure how to accomplish that yet. Pushing Moloka‘i there first and fast, Hawaiian Electric decided, would provide insight and inspiration.

The state of Hawai‘i nearly doubled renewable power generation between 2012 and 2017, but it still constitutes less than a third of the electrical supply. Hawai‘i’s power plants burned 1,438 million liters of petroleum in 2017, equivalent to running three-quarters of a million cars. Colton Ching, Hawaiian Electric senior vice president for planning and technology, says getting the rest of the way will require revamping the electrical grid to balance supply and demand as wind and solar energy fluctuate with the weather.

Aerial photo of Kaunakakai, Moloka‘i, Hawai‘i

The Hawaiian island of Moloka‘i’s power plant lies a few kilometers west of Kaunakakai, the island’s largest town. Photo by Design Pics Inc/Alamy Stock Photo

Moloka‘i’s tiny, six-megawatt grid makes it an ideal test ground to show how such modifications might impact bigger systems like O‘ahu’s 1,200-megawatt grid if scaled up, Ching says. “Learning from Moloka‘i and being able to point to it—to elected officials, to large customers, small customers, regulators, whoever they may be—and say ‘well, look, it’s doable and there are ways to do it cost-effectively.’ That could be of incredible value,” says Ching.

Lessons from Moloka‘i could have global application, since continental grids confront similar renewable energy challenges. “If you can solve them here you can solve them anywhere,” says Matthias Fripp, an engineering professor and energy system modeler at the University of Hawai‘i.

But the social and political challenges of Moloka‘i’s renewable energy transition may prove trickier than its technological ones. The island has a tumultuous history of outsiders pushing big plans and frustrating local initiative that has made residents wary of Hawaiian Electric. Hawaiians already pay more than double the US average for electricity, and Moloka‘i residents pay another one-fifth more—typically around US $165 per month. Pushing to 100 percent renewable power could lock in those high power bills. That’s a tough ask in a place where more than one-fifth of residents live in poverty—double the state average—and half meet the United Way’s definition of working poor.

A speedy transition could also provoke Moloka‘i’s fierce insistence on self-determination. Local activists crushed a 70-turbine wind farm endorsed by the governor’s office a decade ago. It would have produced 35 times more power than the island needs and fed it to O‘ahu via subsea transmission cables. Some islanders supported the plan, while others saw their home being turned into an energy colony. Local author Mike Bond even penned a thriller, Saving Paradise, that cast utility officials and energy developers as conspiratorial murder suspects.

no windmills sign

Moloka‘i residents are known for their resistance to outside businesses perceived to put profit before community good. Photo by Peter Fairley

Ultimately, the success of Moloka‘i’s renewable power effort, and its applicability elsewhere, will depend on whether Moloka‘i and its utility can chart a mutually beneficial escape from petroleum power that brings the community together. As community activist and artist Emillia Noordhoek, cofounder of local development group Sust‘āinable Molokai, puts it: “Is it really going to be a revolution where everybody gets to benefit?”

Renewable Dreams

Island nations from Aruba to Tuvalu to the Solomon Islands have long dreamed of kicking the fossil fuel habit. Most rely on diesel generators, leaving them at the mercy of volatile oil prices and steep markups for not-always-reliable shipping. Rising seas and more powerful storms have added urgency, since the carbon dioxide spewing from island generators contributes to climate change.

On Moloka‘i, it’s also a spiritual matter. Many residents express that getting off petroleum is part of Aloha ʻĀina, or “love of the land”—a traditional dictum to protect the ecosystems that feed them. Sea-level rise and other climate change impacts threaten Moloka‘i’s water supply, and the Trump administration’s half-hearted assistance restoring electricity to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico highlighted the value of self-reliance. “I want to empower my community,” says Keani Rawlins-Fernandez, Moloka‘i’s representative to the Maui County Council, the local government. “I don’t want us to become another Puerto Rico.”

The idea of shifting the island to renewable energy has deep roots that predate Hawaiian Electric’s involvement. When the 1973 oil crisis struck, a Moloka‘i-born electrical engineer named Bruce Yamashita was in charge of the then-independent Moloka‘i Electric Company. His father, Henry Yamashita, a self-taught electrician, had wired up the island’s first power station, managed the utility, and later built his own rooftop solar water heater years before such equipment became commercially available. Taking his dad’s lead, in 1978, Bruce declared Moloka‘i’s diesel-powered grid the ideal case study for getting the United States off Middle Eastern oil. He proposed revamping the system around a new steam generator that would burn local hay and invasive kiawe trees.

hap of Molokai and Hawaiian Islands

Map data by OpenStreetMap via ArcGIS

But the tough hardwood damaged the plant’s chipper, and its steam turbine failed. The Public Utilities Commission (PUC), Hawai‘i’s Honolulu-based regulator that oversees the state’s energy companies, denied Moloka‘i Electric a rate boost needed to fix the equipment. In 1989, Maui Electric, a Hawaiian Electric subsidiary based on Moloka‘i’s neighbor to the east, took control of the cash-strapped firm and has operated the island’s grid ever since.

In a 2014 report by Sust‘āinable Molokai, Bruce recalled the head of Hawaiian Electric telling him point blank in 1978 that his “pipsqueak utility” was out of line trying to upend the status quo. Moloka‘i’s first renewable energy push died at the hands of state energy firms that profited from fossil fuels, concluded the report.

A quarter century after Moloka‘i’s failed renewables push, another oil price spike—to $163 a barrel by mid-2008—put solar and wind back on the island’s agenda. Generous state and federal subsidies helped foster a homegrown Hawaiian rooftop solar industry. And in 2010, Bruce’s son Matt Yamashita, a wiry filmmaker, surfer, fisher, and father of three, accepted a job as the local salesman for Rising Sun Solar, a Maui-based solar system provider, thinking it would be something casual he could do on the side. Instead, the industry exploded.

Solar equipment costs were dropping and were further diminished by tax credits. State net metering rules also required Hawaiian Electric to buy surplus rooftop power from systems connected to the grid at the same steep price that it charged its consumers. And leasing deals made $20,000 arrays of photovoltaic panels affordable for many, including some low-income families. With no money down, Moloka‘i residents suddenly could generate solar power on their rooftops for a third of the cost of power offered by Moloka‘i’s utility. “It was impossible not to sell it at that point,” recalls Matt. “My film career went on hold for a couple of years just because it got so busy.”

Matt Yamashita on a roof with solar panels

Matt Yamashita followed his father and his grandfather into the energy business on Moloka‘i, the least populated of Hawai‘i’s main islands. Photo by Peter Fairley

Almost overnight, little Moloka‘i boasted one of the highest levels of solar adoption per capita in the United States. By 2015, rooftops were supplying more than half of the island’s electricity on many sunny afternoons.

But then it was Matt’s turn to see Moloka‘i’s green initiative upended. For several years, Hawaiian Electric and its subsidiaries had incrementally shut off solar additions to power lines that it claimed were disrupted by the excess energy. In early 2015, subsidiary Maui Electric decided that Moloka‘i’s grid could not handle even one more connected rooftop solar system and put the brakes on solar additions (and nearly three years would pass before the company allowed a trickle of new installations). The island’s solar wave crashed. Solar firms shuttered their on-island operations, leaving Matt and his Moloka‘i-based crew out of jobs and islanders still waiting to go solar high and dry.

Grid Troubles

In the lead-up to the moratorium, Hawaiian Electric frequently overstated the threat that solar power posed to its grids. “There were about a dozen discrete points where they said we need to stop or the grid will explode,” says Mark Duda, a Honolulu-based energy developer who runs one of the state’s solar industry trade organizations. In case after case, says Duda, more solar came online without incident.

But 2015 on Moloka‘i was more complicated than that: instead of just temporary hang-ups on individual power lines, Maui Electric faced an island-wide, existential grid-control problem that could black out the entire island. The challenge plays out daily at Moloka‘i’s power plant, hidden behind a hillside near the island dump a few kilometers west of Kaunakakai, Moloka‘i’s largest town.

The deafening chug of the diesel engines is audible well before the 28-meter-high exhaust stacks poke into view. They can still be heard as a dull roar from inside the plant’s control room, where Moloka‘i native James Juario monitors data from four of the plant’s 10 generators as well as projections for the island’s rooftop solar output. He’s keeping vigil against the grid’s myriad surprises, such as the sudden start or stop of one of the powerful water pumps that feed residents’ taps, or passing clouds that can send solar output gyrating.

The grid can only accept as much power as the island is consuming. Juario must mix and match different sized generators to balance what solar rooftops are producing while ensuring that the generators have enough “spinning reserve”—room to throttle up and down to handle those grid surprises. The Maui Electric chief operator must also keep the generators running hot to prevent inefficient combustion from sending dirtier exhaust up the stacks and violating the air quality rules that protect residents’ health.

Control room of power plant

Employee Damien Pires monitors vital signs at Maui Electric’s power plant on Moloka‘i. Photo by Peter Fairley

Rooftop solar generation is great, says Juario, but it’s made his work more stressful, since more solar leaves the diesel generators with less room to ramp up and down. That loss of flexibility makes it more difficult to prevent both power shortages and overages, increasing the risk of blackouts. Near misses are frequent. In one recent incident, winds knocked a power line down, cutting off more than half of the island’s solar generation. “Luckily, I kept enough spinning reserve,” recalls Juario.

Sust‘āinable Molokai’s energy efficiency efforts have also contributed to the problem, according to Maui Electric renewable energy manager Gregg Kresge. By encouraging residents to swap out inefficient light bulbs and appliances, the nonprofit has helped reduce overall power demand. That’s a good thing, but it also leaves the grid controllers with even less maneuvering room to absorb solar generation and still keep its engines operating efficiently.

Meanwhile, Moloka‘i had also faced growing social inequality in the lead-up to the moratorium, as access to rooftop photovoltaic panels opened an economic divide between solar haves and have-nots. Even though rooftop solar was cheap, the option remained out of reach for many low-income residents because people with low credit scores couldn’t qualify for the leasing deals that really blew the market open, says Noordhoek, the community activist. “The people who are most impacted by the high cost of electricity are not able to participate,” she says.

Businesses that failed to sign up for solar in time also struggled. Misaki’s Grocery, which has served Moloka‘i since 1922, faces stiff competition from another store that lowered its own costs with a solar array. Powering lights, freezers, and fridges makes up a “crazy part” of Misaki’s expenses, according to the grocer’s general manager, Kevin Misaki. Monthly power bills exceed $20,000 when oil prices drive up rates, he says.

Worst of all, perhaps, those state rules that forced utilities to buy excess power from people with panels at its retail rate ensured that many solar owners no longer paid anything to utilities. That left those unable to access solar incentives, businesses like Misaki’s and everyone else, to cover the cost of maintaining the state’s power lines—including equipment upgrades required to manage new rooftop power. Hawai‘i’s PUC ultimately canceled those rules.

Power Grid 2.0

Hawaiian Electric began resolving Moloka‘i’s technical challenges and restarting its renewable energy growth thanks to pressure from the state government. The utility had planned to replace diesel with cheaper liquified natural gas to address cost concerns. Then, when Hawai‘i’s legislature adopted the 100 percent renewable energy target a few months after Hawaiian Electric’s solar moratorium in 2015, the utility pivoted fast and hard. “They came out and said, ‘We can actually achieve this by 2040 and it’s going to cost billions less than business as usual’,” says Jeff Mikulina, whose Honolulu-based Blue Planet Foundation led the 100-percent-renewables campaign. In 2016, Hawaiian Electric filed plans for achieving the mandate, with no role for liquefied natural gas, and vowed to quickly boost its renewable profile by pushing Moloka‘i to 100 percent by 2020. They have much to learn: all of Hawai‘i’s grids ultimately face the power-balancing challenge Moloka‘i now reckons with.

solar panel power station

A solar panel power station near Kōloa, Kaua‘i, Hawai‘i. Photo by Zoonar GmbH/Alamy Stock Photo

So far, Hawaiian Electric and its subsidiary have initiated upgrades on Moloka‘i to enhance flexibility to help grid controllers like Juario. Devices such as sensors, switches, and batteries added to the island’s circuits help reduce reliance on diesel generators to balance supply and demand. A powerful array of lithium batteries installed at the power plant, for example, is on hand to rapidly inject energy into the grid. Right next to it, a hefty resistor, which Kresge likens to a “safety brake,” stands ready to absorb excess power during surges.

The next step will be an overhaul of the energy management system that Juario and his coworkers use to control Moloka‘i’s grid. The new grid IT system will help minimize fuel consumption by automatically coordinating all of the island’s power equipment, including the big battery, diesel generators, and new renewable energy sources.

The utility has begun allowing new grid-connected rooftop solar systems again. And with the upgraded control system and additional solar installations and batteries, energy experts such as Fripp at the University of Hawai‘i say Moloka‘i has a good shot at getting off diesel.

wind turbine farm on the Hawaiian island of Maui

A wind turbine farm on the Hawaiian island of Maui. Moloka‘i resisted efforts to build wind turbines that would have fed power to O‘ahu. Photo by Dennis Frates/Alamy Stock Photo

Hawaiian Electric still has a ways to go to win local trust, however, and last year it struck a deal that didn’t help. Under it, an off-island developer would construct Moloka‘i’s first centralized solar power plant, replacing 150,000 square meters of invasive haole koa trees with thousands of solar panels. About half of the resulting generation would be stored in a dedicated battery, providing much of the island’s overnight power. If it’s built—an uncertain prospect since it recently lost a federal tax credit—it would cut Moloka‘i’s diesel habit in half.

What the solar plant will not transform is Moloka‘i’s punishing power price, reducing the average bill by at most $5 per month, locked in for 22 years. The price of comparable systems has since dropped, and Hawaiian Electric has already secured better deals for other island grids. In March, the PUC approved six solar plants with battery storage on O‘ahu, Maui, and Hawai‘i, similar to but larger than the Moloka‘i project, that will deliver power at rates at least 44 percent cheaper. “The learning curve that will benefit the islands of Maui, Lāna‘i, Hawai‘i, and O‘ahu will be the burden of Moloka‘i,” Maui County’s then-energy commissioner Frederick Redell argued before the PUC last year.

Sharing Control

Fortunately, some local residents think they’ve found an alternative that meets the utility’s needs while better addressing local concerns. A dozen or so gathered on a Saturday morning in March to discuss a community solar farm called Moloka‘i Share Power. In essence, residents subscribe to take a share of the electricity—and benefits—from a centralized solar plant. Noordhoek recently left Sust’āinable Molokai to pull the project together under a statewide Community-Based Renewable Energy program.

Two such projects are supposed to be operating on Moloka‘i by the end of the year. Though an outside nonprofit will build the plant Noordhoek spearheaded, Moloka‘i residents will call the shots. Attendees at the March meeting decided that those most in need, including the elderly, farmers, and the young families who make up much of the island’s working poor, will have priority access. The plant should serve 60 to 90 households, and could more than double in capacity when the state program expands later this year.

Emillia Noordhoek

Emillia Noordhoek is a community activist, artist, and cofounder of local development group Sust‘āinable Molokai. Photo by Peter Fairley

Noordhoek credits Kresge and his colleagues at Maui Electric for their help getting the community solar effort this far. But the project will still need more from them if Moloka‘i Share Power is to shave participants’ costs enough to meaningfully address the inequity. The utility has yet to evaluate the initial project’s impact on Moloka‘i’s grid, for example, and saddling the community solar project’s beneficiaries with the $30,000 to $90,000 price tag for such a study could derail the whole project, Noordhoek says.

The utility has also sent mixed signals regarding electric vehicles. Maui Electric recently opened the first charging station just down the block from Misaki’s on Kaunakakai’s main drag. Encouraging electric vehicle use on Moloka‘i is good for everyone. When the vehicles are plugged into the grid, their batteries are available to help balance it. They also produce less greenhouse gases, and save residents gas money. Yet despite the shared benefits, it took nine years for the utility to answer the community’s call for public chargers.

Still, Kresge says the utility is listening. It knows that the community wants to get off petroleum, and wants cheaper power: “We hear that over and over and over again.” But getting to 100 percent renewable power may still require further investments in grid controls. “It’s not cheap,” he says.

Given the pushback and delays, Moloka‘i and Hawaiian Electric will fall far short of achieving all-renewable power on the island next year. Though solar already has the potential to provide about 50 percent of supply on cloudless days, overall, it provided just 13 percent of Moloka‘i’s power last year. And even if all the planned solar plants are built, the diesel generators would still need to burn at least three to four million liters of fuel to cover remaining power demand. That’s disappointing for Rawlins-Fernandez, Moloka‘i’s county council representative. But she says the “stumbling blocks” are “kind of teaching the whole state a lesson”—even if it’s not the one the utility hoped for.

Whatever happens, islanders like Rawlins-Fernandez and Matt Yamashita won’t give up until Moloka‘i has burned its last drop of petroleum. “We needed to do this years ago,” says Rawlins-Fernandez. “But it’s okay, because we’re here now.”