Even as Hawaii makes an aggressive push to generate its electricity with renewable resources, a stark truth has stood out: as much as a fourth of the electricity produced for the state’s most populous island still comes from coal, which powers a large steam-driven generator at AES Hawaii’s power plant in Kapolei.

Coal is cheap, but dirty, and a looming question has been what will happen when AES Hawaii’s contract to produce power for HECO expires in 2022.

Now, after years of speculation, the answer is becoming clear.

Hawaiian Electric Co. is taking steps to supplant AES’s facility with new renewable resources produced by private developers. HECO still needs approval from utility regulators before the company can issue requests but proposals, but executives said they hope to be able to start issuing RFPs by summer’s end.

Hawaiian Electric Coal burning plant HEI HECO Campbell Industrial Park.
AES, Hawaii’s coal-burning plant at Campbell Industrial Park, is expected shut down in 2022. Hawaiian Electric is embarking on a plan to replace it with new renewable resources. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

It’s part of a broader plan by the affiliated Hawaiian Electric companies – Maui Electric, and the Big Island’s Hawaii Electric Light and Oahu’s HECO — to solicit proposals for a new wave of large-scale renewable generation and storage projects. Also to be shut down and supplanted is a large oil-burning power plant in Kahului, Maui.

“We’re actually looking at retiring those old plants, and how we replace them,” said Jay Griffin, chairman of the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission. “It’s a big question.”

“This is really the grab a ladder and reach as high as you can stage,” Jim Kelly, Hawaiian Electric’s vice president for corporate relations, said in an interview. “This is the big push.”

On Oahu alone, the company expects replacing AES will result in 20 to 29 contracts with private developers and a total investment of $2.5 billion to $4 billion, including land costs. Projects are expected to occupy some 3,000 acres, the equivalent of 29 Aloha Stadiums.

“This is the moon mission right here,” Kelly said.

Rebecca Dayhuff Matsushima, left, director of HECO’s renewable acquisition division, with Jim Alberts, center, senior vice president for business development and strategic planning and Jim Kelly, vice president for corporate relations. Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat

Under Hawaii law, 100 percent of electricity sold in the state must be produced from renewable resources by 2045. On Oahu, the company still has a long way to go. Although renewables provided as much as 58 percent of the island’s power on a peak day in May 2018, the average is lower, and HECO hasn’t yet reached a 30 percent milestone set for 2020 on Oahu.

At any given time, coal and oil still often play a big role on Oahu.

One day last week around midday, only 12% of Oahu’s electricity came from renewables, according to Islandpulse, a data dashboard sponsored by Hawaiian Electric and the Blue Planet Foundation, a renewable energy advocacy nonprofit. Nearly a quarter was produced by coal and about 65% from oil.

Around midday last Thursday, only 12% of the island’s power was being generated by solar, wind, and waste,  according to Islandpulse.orgIslandpulse.org

Executives and regulators expect the current push will change that mix considerably.

Rebecca Dayhuff Matsushima, director of Hawaiian Electric’s renewable acquisition division, said it is important to note that the utility is seeking bids for two things: energy and “capacity,” which generally means storage. In the case of AES, that means enough energy storage, using devices like batteries, to supplant what AES produces. The new capacity needs to be in place by the time AES Hawaii goes off line, she said.

“This is really the grab a ladder and reach as high as you can stage.” — Jim Kelly, vice president for corporate relations, Hawaiian Electric

The Public Utilities Commission and HECO appear to have developed a good working relationship that has allowed them to work through points of disagreement. For example, a point of contention involved whether HECO would be able to use electricity generated from oil to charge the storage devices set up to provide capacity.

“This would be a problem from both a fossil fuel consumption as well as an economic perspective,” the PUC wrote in an order issued in February opposing HECO’s proposal.

“We heard them loud and clear and changed that,” said Jim Alberts, senior vice president for business development and strategic planning.

“I give them credit for being responsive,” the PUC’s Griffith said.

But the PUC might be the least of HECO’s challenges as it unrolls this new, ambitious phase of development.

Dayhuff Matsushima noted that state and county officials will have to be willing to prioritize projects if HECO’s partner-developers expect to meet the 2022 deadline for developing projects to supplant the AES coal-burning plant. Residents also may have to buy in to the idea of projects in their neighborhoods.

”I think what we all mean by this is we have to think of this as an eco-system,” Alberts said. “Everything has to work together and everybody has to work together for this to come out productively.”

“Hawaii’s Changing Economy”  series is supported by a grant from the Hawaii Community Foundation as part of its CHANGE Framework project.

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