A looming lack of spare parts may force Hawaiian Electric to build a whole new power plant on Maui if it can’t find another supplier or alternative solution.

maui locator badgeIn March, Hawaiian Electric alerted the state Public Utilities Commission about the unexpected shutdown of a Japanese parts supplier that appears to be the sole manufacturer of spare parts required to keep four oil-burning Mitsubishi generators at the island’s Maalaea power plant running smoothly.

Installed in the 1980s, these diesel-powered engines are capable of meeting nearly a quarter of Maui’s peak demand for electricity, according to Jim Kelly, spokesman for Hawaiian Electric, which powers 95% of the state’s 1.4 million residents on Oahu, Maui, Molokai, Lanai and the Big Island.

The engines are running fine today. But they require new parts every two and a half years as part of their routine maintenance.

Hawaiian Electric has enough spare parts on hand to complete another round of regular maintenance work for each engine. But now that Mitsubishi can no longer guarantee its future parts supply, it’s unclear what will happen when the engines need to be serviced again in 2027.

Unlike most of HECO’s other generating units, there are no readily available alternate suppliers for most of the parts needed to service the four Maalaea engines, according to the utility.

“This is an unusual situation,” Kelly said. “We’ve never had a manufacturer say to us before, ‘Hey, we’re not going to be able to provide the spare parts anymore.’ And, as the saying goes, hope is not a strategy — especially when it comes to keeping the lights on.”

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As Hawaii strives to becoming more energy independent, global influences are resulting in higher energy bills and an unforeseen crisis for the future viability of a power plant in Maalaea. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2022

As the utility scours the globe for spare parts, HECO is formulating a series of contingency plans to keep Maui’s electricity grid powered in the event that the four Maalaea engines, which the utility had planned to run into the 2030s, can no longer operate.

On the table is a proposal to delay the planned 2024 shutdown of the oil-fired Kahului Power Plant until 2027, a concept unpopular with environmentalists. The utility is also exploring what it would take to speed up the construction of a handful of new renewable energy projects and a plan to build a traditional-style generator that could be powered by either conventional fossil fuels or biofuel to strengthen the power grid when sun and wind-powered sources fall short.

Albert Perez, executive director of the environmental group Maui Tomorrow, said putting off the shutdown of the 75-year-old Kahului power plant would be a mistake.

“If you drive down Haleakala Highway at 4:30 in the afternoon on a sunny day, that Kahului power plant is putting out so much pollution, it just blankets Kahului and Wailuku,” Perez said. “It’s just gross. It’s World War II technology. It’s dirty and I’d like to see it shut down now.”

Another strategy HECO’s considering to make up for the potential loss of the Mitsubishi engines is the formulation of a task force to help quicken the pace of development of five unbuilt solar energy and battery storage projects on Maui that already have PUC approval.

In an effort to build the political will required to jumpstart the projects, HECO and the PUC jointly sent a letter to Maui Mayor Michael Victorino last Monday calling on the county to collaborate with the utility and state officials, as well as environmental and community groups, on a task force modeled after Gov. David Ige’s Powering Past Coal Task Force on Oahu. That task force was established last year to coordinate the progress of PUC-approved projects intended to replace the island’s coal plant.

Getting all the stakeholders in a room together, Kelly said, could help the utility identify and work out obstacles and opposition to the projects, moving them through the permitting process faster.

Perez applauded the idea of a task force to help reduce misunderstandings and miscommunication between the utility and community members.

Additionally, HECO announced last week that it’s seeking proposals from developers for another round of Maui renewable energy projects that it hopes to get online by 2027.

“It could be solar and battery storage or it could be a biomass plant or it could be a power plant that’s powered by biodiesel,” Kelly said. “It could be geothermal. Theoretically, it could be wind. It’s pretty broad and it’s another chance to get more generation resources on Maui.”

As a contingency plan, the utility also wants to start the long approval process to build a new traditional-style generator in Waena with the adaptability to run on diesel or a range of alternative energy sources, such as biofuel, biomass or geothermal.

“We can’t find out in 2024 that a lot of our plans that we’ve been working on aren’t going to happen,” Kelly said. “If, at that point, we start thinking about bringing on a new generator, it’s going to be too late. So we need to get this process started now in case we need it.”

Maui is powered by a utility capable of running on 78% renewable energy most of the day. But when the sun disappears at night, the oil-fired generators at Maalaea and Kahului take over to meet the bulk of the island’s energy demand until morning.

“It’s not just meeting the demand day-to-day,” Kelly said. “We’ve got to have reserves because we’re an island and we’re not hooked up to anybody else. When a machine breaks down or a machine is on the line for maintenance or something happens, you’ve got to have additional reserve generation ready to go because you can’t call up Arizona and say, ‘Hey, send us some more electricity.'”

But at a time when scientists say Hawaii must sharply cut the use of fossil fuels, some environmentalists are critical of the idea of building a new generator capable of running on fossil fuels, which remain the cheapest option.

Perez of Maui Tomorrow said he would like to see the utility adopt a policy for any future traditional-style generators that would prohibit HECO from powering them with oil.

“No new fossils is what we need if we’re going to achieve 1.5 degrees,” said Perez, referring to the push by climate experts to limit global warming by 1.5 degrees Celsius to stave off more devastating environmental consequences. “We can’t keep making exceptions. The cost to everybody on the planet is too great.”

Fossil fuels will likely continue to be part of the energy mix, at least for the next few decades, in order to ensure the dependability of Maui’s electric grid as the utility works to ramp up its investment in renewable energy sources, according to Kelly.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation and the Fred Baldwin Memorial Foundation.

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