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The Maui Energy Conference: Decarbonizing Hawaii’s future

By BY CINDY SCHUMACHER - | Mar 22, 2018

Rep. Chris Lee described legislative bills to lay out the framework for a clean transportation system with benchmarks to reduce carbon as the energy market moves forward. PHOTO BY CINDY SCHUMACHER.

KAHULUI – The Maui Energy Conference returned to the Maui Arts & Cultural Center on March 14-15 to celebrate its fifth anniversary and the tenth anniversary of the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative (HCEI). The event, presented by the Maui Economic Development Board and supported by the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development, explored the theme “Decarbonization: A Business Opportunity for Innovative Communities.”

The conference featured keynote speakers, panel sessions, case studies, exhibits and networking, attracting more than 300 energy industry leaders from Hawaii, the Mainland, Japan and Europe.

Participants exchanged ideas on how to better serve customers in today’s rapidly changing power generation and delivery environment.

Keeping in mind the ten-year anniversary of HCEI, speakers answered questions on its achievements and limits, whether it addressed carbon and whether there is a worthy successor.

“We owe a debt of gratitude to HCEI,” said Doug McLeod, conference Program Committee chair. “They raised the profile of Hawaii on the national energy scene in a way that created the demand for a conference like this. When we looked at the program for this year, we kept asking ourselves what the logical next step is for Hawaii after ten years of HCEI.”

McLeod explained how, in the last 12 months, the energy scene in Hawaii has shown the people of Hawaii the answers.

“From the dispute over the Hu Honua biomass plant on the Big Island to the Sierra Club complaint about the use of coal by HC&S on Maui, to the efforts by the mayors of all the counties in Hawaii to move toward electrification of transportation, and even the ongoing discussion of whether waste-to-energy projects such as H Power on Oahu are really a net benefit to the environment, we are seeing common themes,” McLeod said. “Are we really making power in a way that matches our goals and our values?”

Sessions explored the theme at a policy and regulatory level as well as at the business level. One panel discussion on Convergence examined “how it all comes together” for a shared solution that benefits all stakeholders.

Other topics included Decarbonizing Transportation; Regulating Carbon: The Best Solutions; Storage Technologies, and more.

The Program Committee is comprised of energy experts from Maui, Oahu, Colorado and California. It welcomed new member Frederick Redell, energy commissioner, Maui County Office of Economic Development.

Hawaii became the first U.S. state to set a date, 2045, for the total decarbonization of its power supply. With renewable energy booming since 2008, when the state set a goal of making renewables 40 percent of its power mix by 2030, government and utility incentives both fostered wind power and solar.

Smarter grid design and operation is a rich area of study that has already started to smooth the integration of variable and distributed renewable energy sources. Environmental factors, the abundance of renewable energy resources such as wind, solar, geothermal, hydroelectric and ocean power, are all reasons to move more quickly.

One of the key topics at the conference was battery storage. Attendees were shown a world in which homes are completely powered by clean energy and tied into the smart grid with storage technologies providing the reliability to which we have all become accustomed. Cars are electric, and environmental costs of remaining fossil fuel usage are reflected in its price.

“As prices for storage systems continue to drop, more people will begin to look at the advantages and possibly adopt them,” said Hawaii Energy Advisor Walter Enomoto. “Storage is the next big wave in the energy field.”

“This new paradigm, in fact, is already well underway in the State of Hawaii,” said Daniel Suurkask, managing director of Las Vegas-based Elevation Direct and recognized expert in the energy industry.

Suurkask’s clients include municipal utilities, electric cooperatives, independent generators, ratepayer advocates, lending and rating agencies, large industrial companies, energy marketers and retail energy providers.

“Policy goals, such as the ambitious 100 percent renewable portfolio standard by 2045, say that all electric load in the state is to be met from solar, wind and other renewable sources,” Suurkask said.

“It was acknowledged that while important decarbonization inroads have been made in the electric power sector, in other polluting sectors, starting with transportation, meaningful progress has yet to be seen. Electrification of transportation in Hawaii is the newest hot topic.”

Rep. Chris Lee, in his keynote presentation, said, “Looking at the data is not only prudent but necessary.” Viewing rising sea levels as an effect of inaction, Lee said, “The costs of not going completely green are so high that the costs to ratepayers are comparatively inconsequential.”

Lee agreed with the panel on Convergence: “We need to rethink our approach to reach our goal. All stakeholders have a piece of the puzzle and need to align to work more efficiently. We need to discuss what the private sector wants; technology is demanding it.”

Lee also talked about the electrification of transportation in Hawaii using the electric bus as an example. Decarbonizing transportation will ultimately require updates in the maritime and aviation sectors, as in the new craze, E-bikes.

“We need to change to clean transportation as soon as possible,” said Lee. “New charging infrastructure will help create new jobs and new opportunities.”

As a state representative, Lee described legislative bills to lay out the framework for a clean transportation system, with benchmarks to reduce carbon as the energy market moves forward.

“It’s on government and regulatory agencies to make sure investments benefit everyone,” Lee explained. “It is on the Public Utilities Commission to make sure there are incentives for all people.”

As information about the grid is digitized, computers and cloud-based analytics have the potential to produce incredible cost savings in how the grid is designed and operated, potentially saving 20 percent or more in costs by running and planning the grid more efficiently.

Dawn Lippert, CEO of Elemental Excelerator on Oahu, discussed business opportunities created by HCEI.

“The business community is passionate about fixing the world for future generations,” she said. “Entrepreneurs and clean energy activists are setting the stage for significant opportunities and new career paths for our youth. These jobs will not only help invent the future but will also lead to a cleaner and more resilient island.”

Overseeing the strategic direction of Elemental Excelerator and the execution of its mission, Lippert has been investing in startups since 2009. Elemental Excelerator funded the startup Kevala Analytics, founded by Aram Shumavon. Based in San Francisco but working on Oahu, the company maps out the island’s distribution network, rooftop photovoltaic systems and bulk power resources.

“Kevala is undertaking a stakeholder-driven map exercise,” explained Shumavon. “In the coming months, as the mapping exercise wraps up, Kevala, along with its partners Grid Works and the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute, are building the data sets to drive trillions of dollars in value into the public domain.”

“My project, Pathways to an Open Grid, is focused on digital data that will make the grid more efficient,” said Shumavon.

“America’s electric grid, the power plants and wires that produce and distribute electricity, cost roughly $5 trillion to build. But the decision to invest that money was made when the grid was planned around century-old technologies, and there was little understanding of how technologies like wind and solar would change the value of the grid itself.”

Summing up the conference, James Griffin, Ph.D., Public Utilities commissioner, State of Hawaii, said, “I absolutely believe we have the opportunity for a cleaner, more affordable energy system that serves the state better than the current system. I’m excited by the progress we can make in the next ten years!”