Infrastructure

Hawaii Utility Seeks to Upgrade to a Smart Grid

The Hawaiian Electric Co. has asked the state to approve a $340 million project that would usher in a new era of energy generation and consumption.

by The Honolulu Star-Advertiser / April 5, 2016
Hawaii Gov. David Igeflickr/Hawaii Governor

(TNS) — Upgrading the existing electrical grid to a smart grid is, well, a pretty smart idea — and it’s about time.

Hawaiian Electric Co. last week asked the state to approve a $340 million Smart Grid Foundation Project that would usher in a new era of energy generation and consumption.

Ultimately, it would allow for more use of renewable power sources and give customers more control over their energy usage.

At first blush, the proposal appears to fit well with Gov. David Ige’s clean energy goal of the utility producing 100 percent of its electricity sales from renewable energy resources by 2045.

HECO’s system would include a wireless communication network, smart meters and enhanced technology that would upgrade the existing electrical grid to be more automated and energy-efficient.

According to the nonprofit Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative, a smart grid would:

  • Allow more diverse and geographically scattered renewable power sources to feed into the system. The upgrades would ensure that this energy can be stored safely and distributed where and when it’s needed.
  • Meet increasing consumer demand with more advanced technologies.
  • Allow the utility to better detect outages and restore power.
  • Enable consumers to monitor and adjust usage via computers and mobile devices, which could lead to lower electricity bills.

But all that does come at a price. Ratepayers would end up footing the bill for HECO’s smart-grid project, but the cost is projected to be minimal for residential customers: about 23 cents per month for 20 years.

Commercial customers would end up bearing more of the burden, and HECO will have to be more forthcoming with those figures.

Alan Oshima, Hawaiian Electric president and CEO, outlined in a news release last week the positive advancements that would come with a smart grid. He said consumers could expect better service, more options to manage their bills and more renewable energy — all worthwhile goals.

Already, the proposal is receiving a warm reception from at least some environmental groups.

Blue Planet Foundation, a clean-energy organization, said the plan would enable HECO to bring more rooftop solar online because the upgrades would enable the utility to better understand how the energy generated would affect the grid.

Further, Blue Planet Executive Director Jeff Mikulina touted the $151 million in savings over 20 years from energy efficiency if the smart grid is approved.

But the plan must undergo state Public Utilities Commission review, where it’s hoped that today’s cautious optimism will be validated as project details emerge.

An interesting sidenote: HECO’s plan appears to have passed muster with NextEra Energy Inc., which is awaiting PUC approval on its bid to buy the utility.

Under NextEra, HECO says, the smart-grid system would cost $22 million less, due to the Florida-based company’s experience with smart meters and its lower borrowing costs.

Still, HECO is offering an ambitious timetable of its own for installation of the smart grid. On Oahu the project would begin in 2017, and for Maui County and Hawaii island, a year later.

The company said use of smart meters would eliminate the need for its 50 meter readers, but encouragingly, said workers would transition into new positions rather than being laid off.

It will be up to HECO — or perhaps NextEra — to justify to the PUC its costs and fees for the smart-grid upgrades. Fundamentally, though, the state can’t expect to meet its aggressive renewable energy goals without taking bold steps, and this seems to be one of them.

©2016 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.