Hawaii Says ‘Aloha’ to a 100% Renewable Power Grid

Credit: Blue Planet Foundation

Credit: Blue Planet Foundation

Hawaii’s legislature voted yesterday to stake the state’s future on renewable energy. According to House Bill 623, the archipelago’s power grids must deliver 100 percent renewable electricity by the end of 2045. If the compromise bill is signed by the governor as expected, Hawaii will become the first U.S. state to set a date for the total decarbonization of its power supply.

Renewable energy has been booming since 2008 when the state set a goal of making renewables 40 percent of its power mix by 2030, and government and utility incentives ignited wind power and solar installations. By the end of 2013, renewable energy had jumped from 7.5 percent to 18 percent of the state’s capacity. HB623 seeks to extend and turbo-boost that trend, calling for 30 percent renewables in 2020 and 70 percent by 2030 en route to the final leap to 100 percent.

That last jump could be difficult, says Peter Crouch, a power grid simulation expert and dean of engineering at the University of Hawaii’s flagship Manoa campus. “Today I don’t know whether we can do it,” he says.

Crouch has nevertheless championed the 100 percent renewables goal as a must-do leap of faith. “Without a goal, Hawaii will never get real and grapple with the issues that it needs to in order to get this done,” says Crouch.

Hawaii may be a leader for the U.S. states, but it’s not the only jurisdiction catching the 100-percent-renewables wave. As Crouch notes in an editorial he co-wrote for the Honolulu Star Advertiser in March, other municipalities going for it it include cities such as San Francisco and San Jose (within the next decade). Denmark hopes to be, by 2035, the first country to kick the carbon habit.

For Japan’s Fukushima prefecture, which set itself a 2040 deadline for relying solely on renewables, the switch is about rebuilding hope in the future. When I visited Koriyama, Fukushima’s commercial center, last year, the mayor, Masato Shinagawa, described renewable power as a “must-succeed mission” to rebuild a region shattered by the nuclear reactor meltdowns at TEPCO’s Daiichi nuclear plant in 2011. He called the resurgence of solar power in Japan nothing less than the “Prometheus of the 21st Century.”

The hopefulness is contagious. Costa Rica’s striving for 100 percent renewable power went viral in March when state utility Grupo ICE revealed that the country’s grid had been fossil-free since the beginning of 2015 thanks to bumper rains that filled hydropower reservoirs to the brim. Last month Grupo ICE projected that its fossil-fueled plants would supply just 2.9 percent of power in 2015 as a whole, and new hydro, wind and geothermal power in the offing should put the final stake in its fossil fuel habit.

According to Crouch, Hawaii’s push for 100 percent renewables is propelled by a blend of economic, social, and environmental factors. The economics lie in the state’s historic reliance on imported diesel fuel, which has left Hawaiians paying power rates roughly three times the mainland U.S. average.

Environmental factors—the abundance of renewable energy resources including wind, solar, geothermal, hydro and ocean power, plus acutely-felt threats posed by climate change such as sea level rise and wilder weather—are mutually reinforcing reasons to move quickly. Crouch says one feels far more aware of climate change and more vulnerable to it living in Hawaii—a difference that struck him as soon as he moved out from the mainland in 2006.

For example, Crouch says, much of Hawaii’s development is near the water, and most Hawaiians are familiar with projections showing downtown Waikiki under water within a century. “One of the economic drivers of Hawaii could be submerged. That’s a very real thing,” says Crouch.

He adds that help will be much slower to arrive if Hawaii is pounded by climate-enhanced storms. One can see how that would put a sharper focus on the IPCC’s latest assessment, which calls for decarbonization of the world’s power supplies by mid-century in order to limit global warming to less than 2 °C by 2100.

If the allure and mission of renewable energy for Hawaii is clear, the path to a 100 percent renewable grid is far less so, according to Crouch and his colleague Anthony Kuh, who leads the University of Hawaii’s Renewable Energy and Island Sustainability program. As a recent article in Yale Environment 360 noted, technical and regulatory hurdles have recently slowed the state’s renewables growth.

Both Crouch and Kuh are counting on technology advances that will be driven in part by the 100 percent renewable goal. Smarter grid design and operation is a rich area of study that is already starting to smooth the integration of variable and distributed renewable energy energy sources. For example, a novel tweak to rooftop solar system inverters recently convinced local utility Hawaiian Electric Company (HECO) that it could manage the integration of more rooftop capacity. And even smarter inverters that can dynamically manage the voltage of distribution lines are nearing the market.

Energy storage also looks likely to play an expanding role. On several islands, plans are already being drawn up for advanced pumped storage hydropower plants that deftly flip between charge and discharge to balance shifting wind or solar power.

Crouch and Kuh are less confident that Hawaiians will embrace interconnecting the islands’ hitherto isolated power grids to enhance the sharing of renewable energy resources. Uniting Hawaii’s grids via subsea cables was recently a goal for NextEra Energy, the Florida-based utility now seeking to acquire HECO. But the University of Hawaii professors say subsea cabling could be costly and runs counter to popular interest in building self-sustaining communities.

Another energy project that may run up against the 100 percent renewable goal is importing liquefied natural gas (LNG) for power generation. The use of gas-fired plants has risen dramatically in the mainland U.S., and is expected to accelerate further as regulations such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan shutter more coal-fired power plants. But LNG-fired gas plants will be harder to justify in Hawaii if they must shut down by 2045.

As Crouch puts it: “Why invest in LNG infrastructure if you’re going to eventually have to do something else? You might as well take that investment and put it in renewables.”

Will other U.S. states follow Hawaii’s lead? It is a hard notion to imagine at present, as leaders in Congress fight to block the EPA’s coal-cutting Clean Power Plan and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation asserts that poorly-coordinated implementation will cause blackouts.

Still, there are a number of states that have set aggressive goals for reducing carbon emissions by 2050. Both New York and California are committed to slashing carbon emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by then. Carbon markets and other mechanisms could translate those carbon reductions into massive expansions of renewable power.

Direct goals akin to Hawaii’s may also be in the offing. California governor Jerry Brown has called for his state to get 50 percent of its power from renewables by 2030. According to the Palm Springs-based Desert Sun newspaper, a bill codifying Brown’s proposal is “almost certain to pass” the state legislature.

This post was created for Energywise, IEEE Spectrum’s blog on green power, cars and climate

Storing Solar Energy: A great idea caught on contested ground

Adding energy storage to sites with rooftop solar power generation offers a range of potential benefits. A battery can help smooth out solar’s inherently variable supply of power to the local grid, and even keep buildings powered during blackouts. Consequently, power-conversion innovators are developing a host of new products designed to reduce the cost and improve the efficiency of integrated solar-storage systems.

Some analysts project a boom in the co-location of solar and energy storage. GTM Research, for example, foresees that co-located PV and storage will grow from $42 million in 2014 to more than $1 billion by 2018. However, the market is moving slower than it might thanks to a little-discussed regulatory roadblock in the United States.

According to Vic Shao, CEO for the Santa Clara, California-based energy storage startup Green Charge Networks, tightly integrating storage with photovoltaics in some key states—including Hawaii and California—runs afoul of the “net metering” rules by which PV owners earn lucrative retail rates for the surplus power they feed to the grid. Adding storage can disqualify solar systems for net metering, in which utilities can pay their owners wholesale power rates that are several times lower than retail. “That is obviously a pretty big problem for anybody considering solar. That could kill a lot of projects,” says Shao. Continue reading

European Grid Operators 1, Solar Eclipse 0

Solar forecast for March 20 via Energy-Charts.de, with previous days' generation

Solar forecast for March 20 from Energy-Charts.de, with prior days’ solar output

Weather forecasts calling for bright sun today across Europe drove up tensions in advance of the partial solar eclipse that blocked the sun’s rays and plunged much of the continent into a brief period of darkness this morning. Grid operators were bracing for record swings in solar power generation because of the celestial phenomenon. Some power distributors in Germany had warned of fluctuations in frequency, notifying customers and suggesting that they shut down sensitive equipment.

In the end, while clear weather made for some excellent eclipse viewing, the electrical story ultimately felt more like Monty Python’s radio coverage of the 1972 eclipse. As if audio coverage of a quintessentially visual event isn’t absurd enough, the Pythons closed their fictitious report in the ultimate anticlimax, as a sudden rainstorm swept in to spoil the solar spectacle. Europe’s interconnected power grid brought about an equally anticlimactic ending today by delivering rock-solid stability throughout the 2.5-hour eclipse. Continue reading

Solar Eclipse Will Test European Power Grids

imgA partial eclipse of the sun headed for Europe next Friday has grid operators in a tizzy. On the morning of March 20 Europe’s skies will darken for the first time since solar power became a meaningful piece of some countries’ power supply, and the impact could be dramatic.

“It’s a very, very big challenge for the transmission system operators in Europe,” says Enrico Maria Carlini, Head of Electric System Engineering for National Dispatching at Rome-based Italian transmission system operator Terna.

The Brussels-based European Network for Transmission System Operators for Electricity (ENTSO-E) judges in an eclipse impact analysis released last month that it poses a, “serious challenge to the regulating capability of the interconnected power system.”

While an eclipse markedly reduced solar generation in western North America last October according to energy tracking firm Opower, Europe’s far greater levels of solar power make for bigger stakes. ENTSO-E projects that the moon’s jaunt across the sun’s path next Friday could slash more than 30 gigawatts (GW) of solar generation in Continental Europe over one hour if clouds are scarce and solar generation is high. That’s the equivalent of turning off 30 big coal or nuclear power stations. Continue reading

Censors Take On China’s Silent Spring Moment

Jinhua skyline 2005c

Jinhua skyline, 2005

Chinese censors took down a hugely popular documentary on China’s air pollution crisis this past weekend, according to reports by the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. Under the Dome, a polished, 104-minute report by Chinese broadcast journalist Chai Jing [embedded below], had gone viral after its release last week, attracting several hundred million views in China before censors restricted domestic access to the video and squelched news coverage of it.

The film is a damning account of China’s declining air quality, the sources of its pollution, and the toothlessness of environmental agencies charged with controlling it. It’s a wide-ranging production that tries to explain the price China has paid for its industrialization and wealth generation, as well as a passionate call to action.

For me, the film’s visceral portrayal of contemporary life amidst smog—and the movie’s historic sweep—sparked flashbacks to my own discomfort breathing in Chinese air during visits in 1991, 2005, and 2006.

In 1991, my eyes burned as the aging cruise liner I’d taken over from Japan motored up the Huangpu River, past the petrochemical plants then lining the river’s eastern banks, on its way into Shanghai. But the historic city across the river was clean. Aside from a few buses, it was a city that still moved on pollution-free pedal power, its streets a flood of bicycles. And as I traveled inland for several weeks, the pollution faded further, revealing China’s natural beauty.

When I flew into Shanghai 14 years later to report on China’s rising tide of electric bicycles for IEEE Spectrum, Shanghai itself seemed still cleaner than I’d recalled. While cars and trucks were on the rise, the East-bank industry had been cleared to make way for gleaming skyscrapers.

But China was clearly changing. I visited smaller cities where smog nearly blocked out the sun. Continue reading

EPA Coal Cuts Light Up Washington

A meeting at the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s (FERC’s) Washington headquarters yesterday lived up to expectations that it would be one of the most exciting sessions in the agency’s history. Buttoned up policy wonks, lobbyists, and power market experts showed up in droves—over 600 registered—to witness a discussion of what President Obama’s coal-cutting Clean Power Plan presaged for the U.S. power grid. The beltway crowd was joined by activists for and against fossil fuels—and extra security.

Inside proceedings, about the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) plans’ impact on power grid reliability, protesters against fracking and liquid natural gas exports shouted “NATURAL GAS IS DIRTY” each time a speaker mentioned coal’s fossil fuel nemesis. Outside, the coal industry-backed American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity distributed both free hand-warmers and dark warnings that dumping coal-fired power would leave Americans “cold in the dark.”

As expected, state regulators and utility executives from coal-reliant states such as Arizona and Michigan hammered home the ‘Cold in the Dark’ message in their exchanges with FERC’s commissioners. Gerry Anderson, Chairman and CEO of Detroit-based utility DTE Energy, called the Clean Power Plan “the most fundamental transformation of our bulk power system that we’ve ever undertaken.”

EPA’s critics argue that the plan’s timing is unrealistic and its compliance options are inadequate. Anderson said Michigan will need to shut down, by 2020, roughly 40 percent of the coal-fired generation that currently provides half of the state’s power. That, he said, “borders on unachievable and would certainly be ill-advised from a reliability perspective.”

EPA’s top air pollution official, Janet McCabe, defended her agency’s record and its respect for the grid. “Over EPA’s long history developing Clean Air Act standards, the agency has consistently treated electric system reliability as absolutely critical. In more than 40 years, at no time has compliance with the Clean Air Act resulted in reliability problems,” said McCabe.

McCabe assured FERC that EPA had carefully crafted its plan to provide flexibility to states and utilities regarding how they cut emissions from coal-fired power generation, and how quickly they contribute to the rule’s overall goal of lowering power sector emissions by 30 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels. (Michigan has state-verified energy conservation and renewable energy options to comply with EPA’s plans according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.)

McCabe said EPA is considering additional flexibility before it finalizes the rule, as early as June. EPA would consider, for example, specific proposals for a “reliability safety valve” to allow a coal plant to run longer than anticipated if delays in critical replacement projects—say, a natural gas pipeline or a transmission line delivering distant wind power—threatened grid security.

As it turned out, language codifying a reliability safety valve was on offer at yesterday’s meeting from Craig Glazer, VP for federal government policy at PJM Interconnection, the independent transmission grid operator for the Mid-Atlantic region. The language represents a consensus reached by regional system operators from across the country—one that is narrowly written and therefore unlikely to give coal interests much relief. “It can’t be a free pass,” said Glazer.

A loosely-constrained valve, explained Glazer, would undermine investment in alternatives to coal-fired power, especially for developers of clean energy technologies. “Nobody’s going to make those investments because they won’t know when the crunch time really comes. It makes it very hard for these new technologies to jump in,” said Glazer.

Clean energy advocates at the meeting, and officials from states that, like California, are on the leading edge of renewable energy development, discounted the idea that additional flexibility would be needed to protect the grid. They pushed back against reports of impending blackouts from some grid operators and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation(NERC). Those reports, they say, ignored or discounted evidence that alternative energy sources can deliver the essential grid services currently provided by conventional power plants.

NERC’s initial assessment, issued in November, foresees rolling blackouts and increased potential for “wide-scale, uncontrolled outages,” and NERC CEO Gerald Cauley says a more detailed study due out in April will identify reliability “hotspots” caused by EPA’s plan. At the FERC meeting, Cauley acknowledged that “the technology is out there allowing solar and wind to be contributors to grid reliability,” but he complained that regulators were not requiring them to do so. Cauley called on FERC to help make that happen.

Cleantech supporters, however, are calling on the government to ensure that NERC recognizes and incorporates renewable energy’s full capabilities when it issues projections of future grid operations. They got a boost from FERC Commissioner Norman Bay. The former chief of enforcement at FERC and Obama’s designee to become FERC’s next chairman in April, Bay pressed Cauley on the issue yesterday.

Bay asked Cauley how he was going to ensure that NERC is more transparent, and wondered whether NERC would make public the underlying assumptions and models it will use to craft future reports. Cauley responded by acknowledging that NERC relied on forecasts provided by utilities, and worked with utility experts to “get ideas on trends and conclusions” when crafting its reliability studies.

Cauley also acknowledged that they were not “entirely open and consensus based” the way NERC’s standards-development process was. And he demurred on how much more open the process could be, telling Bay, “I’ll have to get back to you on that.”

The challenge from Bay follows criticism leveled at NERC in a report issued last week by the Brattle Group, an energy analytics firm based in Boston. Brattle found that compliance with EPA’s plan was “unlikely to materially affect reliability.”

Brattle’s report concurred with renewables advocates who have argued that NERC got it wrong by focusing too much on the loss of coal-fired generation and too little on that which would replace it: “The changes required to comply with the CPP will not occur in a vacuum—rather, they will be met with careful consideration and a measured response by market regulators, operators, and participants. We find that in its review NERC fails to adequately account for the extent to which the potential reliability issues it raises are already being addressed or can be addressed through planning and operations processes as well as through technical advancements.”

This post was created for Energywise, IEEE Spectrum’s blog on green power, cars and climate

Will Shuttering Coal Plants Really Threaten the Grid?

Does President Obama’s plan to squelch carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants really threaten the stability of the grid? That politically-charged question is scheduled for a high-profile airing today at a meeting in Washington to be telecast live starting at 9 am ET from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

Such “technical meetings” at FERC are usually pretty dry affairs. But this one could be unusually colorful, presenting starkly conflicting views of lower-carbon living, judging from written remarks submitted by panelists.

On one side are some state officials opposed to the EPA Clean Power Plan, which aims to cut U.S. power sector emissions 30 percent by 2030 from 2005 levels. Susan Bitter Smith, Arizona’s top public utilities regulator, argues that EPA’s plan is “seriously jeopardizing grid reliability.” Complying with it would, she writes, cause “irreparable disruption” to Arizona’s (coal-dependent) power system.

Environmental advocates and renewable energy interests will be hitting back, challenging the credibility of worrisome grid studies wielded by Bitter Smith and other EPA critics. Some come from organizations that are supposed to be neutral arbiters of grid operation, such as the standards-setting North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC). Clean energy advocates see evidence of bias and fear-mongering in these studies, and they are asking FERC to step in to assure the transparency and neutrality of future analyses. Continue reading