A world without HECO. That’s the vision of a new report out by Henry Curtis, executive director of environmental advocacy organization, Life of the Land.

Curtis has been a mainstay in Hawaii’s tight-knit energy sector for years and a vocal critic of the electric utility that supplies power to Oahu, the Big Island and Maui County.

His 130-page report gives an overview of Hawaii’s energy resources, such as geothermal, solar and wind, and provides Life of the Land’s projections for the state’s energy future.

The main takeaway: the state can and should be generating 90 percent of its electricity by 2030 from sources such as rooftop solar and small-scale wind that power a single home or neighborhood.

Referred to in the industry as distributed generation, this model is a complete overhaul of the traditional, centralized model of Hawaiian Electric Co., in which electricity is produced from large-scale generators that supply power to residents throughout island-wide electric grids.

In this model, all electricity is generated at or near the site where it is used.

It’s a trend that Curtis says is inevitable as cutting-edge technology advances.

On the near horizon is the capacity to replace yesterday’s electric grid with tomorrow’s Smart Buildings, where conservation and energy efficiency will reduce demand, on-site renewable energy facilities will provide energy for buildings and electricity for vehicles, and small microgrids will be used within small communities.

But as more residents and businesses move to on-site generation and reduce their energy consumption, there are unintended consequences, according to the report. While people with rooftop solar installations can reduce their electricity bills to nearly zero, costs for those left on the grid will only go up as fewer customers have to cover a greater percentage of the utilities’ fixed costs, including generators and transmission lines.

The end result? The death of HECO.

“Under this scenario, companies such as HECO would be sucked down into a bottomless vortex and ultimately fail as a viable investor-owned corporation,” the report says.

Asked for a response, HECO spokesman, Peter Rosegg, said, “I don’t think we will be commenting on that.”

Curtis told Civil Beat that there may be some hope for HECO despite the report’s projections.

“It would involve having a new relationship with the (Hawaii Public Utilities Commission) and a new relationship to how they raise and spend funds,” he said.

The report doesn’t suggest different business models for HECO and Curtis said it wasn’t meant to be prescriptive.

“This is a conceptual, out-of-the-box framework on how to move forward on (distributed generation),” he said.

Smaller independent systems are not the future that HECO or the state energy office has been championing as they strive to meet the goals laid out in the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative, which includes 40 percent renewable energy and a 30 percent reduction in energy use by 2030.

The focus has been on projects that feed into the electric grid, such as large-scale wind farms, geothermal and the cultivation of biofuels for use in HECO’s generators.

But it’s not up to policymakers or the electric utility, says Curtis — the revolution will begin with residents.

With sharp rises in electricity rates, consumers are looking to take control of their own electricity production at lower and stable costs — and the market is rising to meet their demands, he told Civil Beat.

Some residents have already gone completely off-grid, investing in expensive batteries for their home solar arrays or for the wind turbine that they use to power their property. The battery provides them with a constant supply of energy. Otherwise, there would only be electricity when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing.

But the majority of people with rooftop solar displays tie the systems into HECO’s electric grids so they don’t have to pay for battery storage. The grid operates like a large battery, supplying customers with a constant source of power.

But battery storage technology is advancing rapidly and costs are expected to go down, said Curtis, which will allow residents to more easily bypass the electric grid.

And there is also increasing research into micro-grids, small grids that are separate from the utility grids. The report notes the work being done at Camp Smith, which focuses on integrating multiple renewable energy generators into one micro-grid. The military in Hawaii has indicated in the past that it plans to take all of its bases off of HECO’s grids for security reasons.

Life of the Land isn’t alone in its vision of a grid-less future. Warren Bollmeier, head of the Hawaii Renewable Energy Alliance said it was feasible and something that the state should be moving toward.

And it’s something that many in the solar sector have been talking about for years.

Mark Duda, a principal at solar company, RevoluSun, agreed with Curtis that it was the direction things were moving regardless of HECO or state policymakers.

“I can observe directly that there is a psychological aspect to the appearance of distributed generation on top of the technological and economic aspects that are all evolving in the direction of it,” he said. “People want to be generating their own electricity.”

Duda and Bollmeier were less confident about whether the state could be there by 2030.

“It might be tough to do it all,” said Bollmeier.

Curtis said that the projection was based on his own technical and economic analysis, but that it wasn’t definitive.

“It’s not a hard and fast deadline,” he said. “It’s a conceptual framework that will take time to implement. And it seemed reasonable that 90 percent could be achieved by 2030,” he said.

Read the full report below:

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