They would offer plenty of benefits, but it’s difficult to build those systems and will need buy-in from the West Maui community.

As Lahaina looks to rebuild, Maui’s largest power provider says it’s open to using microgrids, which allow clusters of nearby homes and buildings to access stored power during an outage, in order to boost the energy grid’s overall resiliency there.

But creating such grids within a grid can be difficult and complex – and they’ll only appear in Lahaina if the West Maui community ultimately supports it, a Hawaiian Electric executive said.

Nonetheless, microgrids could help the utility finally create a public safety power shutoff program to de-energize its power lines ahead of severe weather and reduce risks of sparking a wildfire, according to Colton Ching, Hawaiian Electric’s vice president for planning and technology. 

Power lines on Maui in Kaanapali. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
Power lines run through Kaanapali on Maui. Utility and solar energy officials are considering microgrid technology as one way to make the grid there more resilient and even reduce some wildfire risk, as long as it’s accepted by the community. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

The company faced widespread criticism for not having such a program similar to utilities in other wildfire-prone parts of the U.S. after most of Lahaina and parts of Kula were destroyed on Aug. 8. Hawaiian Electric announced last month that it had begun discussions about developing a shutoff plan.

Solar Industry Support

On Friday, Ching said that microgrids could allow certain users, such as emergency responders, to get power during a regionwide shutoff. By storing power on-site, microgrids would also reduce the need for at least some distribution lines on the larger grid, further reducing the risk of wildfires, he added.

Hawaiian Electric is applying for federal funds to create two diesel-generated microgrids, dubbed “community customer hubs,” to provide power to critical users in West Maui during an emergency, according to Ching. 

The application has to go through the state and it’s expected to be submitted to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s competitive Building Resilience Infrastructure and Communities program early next year, he said.

Meanwhile, the leaders of Hawaii’s private-sector solar industry say they’re eager to help install renewable energy-powered microgrids in Lahaina as part of the rebuild. 

“We are ready and willing and monitoring the situation,” said Rocky Mould, president of the Hawaii Solar Energy Association. “We have a solution that can really help and we want to provide that.”

Similar to Hawaiian Electric, Mould said the HSEA members are sensitive to the rebuilding process being community-led and will wait to see what comes of it. In the meantime, they’re keeping an eye on how the Legislature might act on the issue.

Molokai recently saw a similar, community-driven effort to help shape how that island’s energy might be generated and delivered in the decades ahead, through the Molokai Community Energy Resilience Action Plan, or CERAP.

The first version of the plan, completed in June, includes ten new renewable energy projects for the Friendly Isle, according to Leilani Chow, energy sovereignty program lead at Sustainable Molokai, which helped prepare CERAP.

Eventually, some or all of those projects could serve as microgrids because Molokai residents strongly support creating a grid to better handle emergencies, she said.

“It was the most uniting thing, in a way. Everyone cares about it,” Chow said Tuesday of that resiliency. Making sure all the projects have energy storage and that they were “island-able” to handle emergencies “was a huge piece of everything we designed,” she added.

Hawaiian Electric, which runs Molokai’s mostly diesel-powered grid, participated in the CERAP meetings and offered feedback but it’s not clear yet whether the utility will ultimately embrace all of what’s in the community-led plan, Chow said.

The local community, she said, is fully capable of grasping the technical knowledge needed to help design their local grid. “If it’s community-led, it has the best chance of producing projects that go above and beyond” simply delivering electricity.

Chow added, however, that “we’re in a totally different spot than Lahaina. We’re not in the middle of a huge disaster and emergency.”

“Their immediate needs are more for housing and everyday essentials than renewable energy planning. But Molokai has learned so much, and it’s super accessible to other communities,” she said.

Hurdles To Make Microgrids A Reality

How the final grid will look depends largely on how the Lahaina community wants its rebuilt streets and neighborhoods to take shape.

So far, Hawaiian Electric has described the new poles and lines it has erected in the area to replace damaged and destroyed ones as temporary while the community takes those early steps. 

One example for how a basic microgrid might work in Hawaii would be for 10 power customers to pool their resources and build a shared solar-and-battery system instead of 10 individual systems. Then, they would use Hawaiian Electric lines to distribute that generated power, Ching said.

Still, setting up those shared systems remains difficult — so far none have materialized under the 2019 microgrid service tariff approved by the state’s Public Utilities Commission that enabled power customers to create those systems, according to Ching.

A solar farm sits behind a fence in Waikoloa on Hawaii island. Utility executives say one of the biggest challenges to creating a microgrid in Hawaii is acquiring the necessary land for the panels. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022)

One of the biggest challenges, he said, is for those interested to get sufficient land to install the solar panels. Powering all of central Lahaina on microgrids with the 48 megawatts required for the area would require roughly 720 acres of land for the panels, Ching said.

Additionally, private microgrid projects require the financing, permitting and agreements from all relevant parties involved with it to come together.

In the case of Lahaina, that would further need to come together within the timeline of the area’s reconstruction.

Those complexities are why customers often choose to install individual solar-and-battery systems instead, Ching said.

‘Wildfire Ignition Risk’

Oahu currently only has two microgrids, he said: a Department of Defense-run 50-megawatt station at Schofield Barracks that sends power to the Hawaiian Electric grid but can power the military installations there during an outage, and a series of backup diesel generators run by the state’s Department of Transportation at the Honolulu airport.

On Hawaii island, Hawaiian Electric is working on installing a battery at its substation in Hawi, near the northern tip of the island, Ching said. The battery will provide power to the Kohala area for several hours, and the local community chose it instead of running a second power line through the rugged, remote and dry terrain there, he said.

“It’s actually a pretty good example, when you add the layer of wildfire ignition risk,” Ching said of the Hawi project. The fire risk is “definitely going to be an important factor of … do we build a line here or do we forgo that and build a generator and storage? That’s absolutely something we need to consider.”

Mould said the local solar industry remains eager to pursue the microgrids for Lahaina along with individual solar-and-battery systems there.

“We have to think outside of the box,” he said. “It feeds not just into our clean energy goals but our resilience.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of climate change is supported by the Environmental Funders Group of the Hawaii Community Foundation, Marisla Fund of the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

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