Balancing Hawaii's energy supply and demand
Solar and wind power are clean and renewable, but their variability needs to be matched with techniques, storage and "firm" sources to meet consumer demand
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Case Study: KIUC and the Local Solution
The Garden Island’s electric utility, the Kauai Island Utility Cooperative, has set the most ambitious energy goal in Hawaii: 50 percent renewable energy by the year 2023. “We think that will be the highest percentage of any utility in the country, and possibly the world,” says Jim Kelly, KIUC’s communications manager.
Can Kauai do it? It has a lot going for it: In addition to plenty of natural resources, Kaua‘i has a relatively small population in relation to its land size, about 68,000 residents.
KIUC is also a cooperative, owned by its members – that is, its customers. Being a co-op, Kelly says, “absolutely helps. We’re very nimble. There is very little bureaucracy here.”
But the Island also faces an outsize challenge. Wind power, one of renewable energy’s major options, is off the table. Kauai is home to a large population of endangered seabirds. Mixing windmills and federally protected avian life could have disastrous results, both for endangered bird populations and KIUC’s bottom line. “We want to go renewable,” says Kelly, “but not at any cost.”
KIUC plans to leverage what it’s got. A six-megawatt solar facility, the largest in Hawaii, has gone up at Port Allen, owned by a subsidiary of land-rich Alexander & Baldwin. Two more large-scale solar projects are planned, which would more than triple KIUC’s solar capacity and account for half of Kauai’s daytime energy needs by 2015.
Firm power is still central to the plan (see Constant Renewable #2 in the main story), but KIUC will take advantage of Kauai’s available agricultural land to see that much of it comes from renewable fuel, grown on-island. More hydroelectric power, which has been used on Kauai for more than a century, is also on the cards.
Kelly says that, in an era of local renewables, each location’s solution will be unique. “What’s cool about this is that there’s not a one-size-fits-all answer to this problem,” he says. “It’s going to be truly local. Each island has its own menu of solutions that they’re selecting, depending on what natural resources are available to them, what the community is embracing and what the costs are.”
Look Out for Black Swans
One thing all factions of the power industry can agree on is that no one really knows what the energy landscape will be a generation from now. “We all have our own vision of what it might look like, but we need to remain open to black swans,” says Mikulina.
In this case, a “black swan” – a term coined in 2007 to mean an unexpected development that changes the world so much it looks inevitable in hindsight – may look like a graphene supercapacitor.
Like batteries, capacitors store electrical energy. But they are much simpler devices, and can charge and discharge up to 1,000 times faster than a battery. Until recently, there was a catch: Most capacitors were many times the size of an equally powered battery, and supercapacitors (energy-dense capacitors) were difficult and prohibitively expensive to make. That is, until UCLA graduate student Maher El-Kady was tinkering in the lab one day and stumbled on a way to make a supercapacitor using a LightScribe DVD burner – the kind that might have come with your PC. No commercial applications exist yet, but this breakthrough is already being hailed as potentially game-changing.
Imagine charging your electric car in less than the time it takes for a gas fill up. Or using graphene supercapacitors at utility scale to store excess energy and thereby smooth out peaks in demand. And, because they’re biodegradable, they can supply the compost heap when they’re done.
In the near term, though, it’s hard to tell a black swan from a red herring, and even forward-thinking utilities need to be cautious before embracing new ideas. “There are a lot of people out there selling renewable-energy ideas, but they usually don’t have any financing, and a lot of times they have no examples of where it’s actually working,” says Jim Kelly, of KIUC. “We just don’t have the time to fool around with that kind of stuff. We’ve got a very aggressive schedule. We’re not in the experimenting business; we’re in the power-supply business, and we need processes and technologies that have proven to actually work and that make sense financially.”
One for the Road
Some day, your electric car may not just save you money; it might earn you money. The University of Delaware has fitted a small fleet of Mini Coopers with “vehicle-to-grid” technology: two-way battery chargers that could – if scaled up immensely – be used to stabilize the fluctuations of a city’s grid by absorbing excess power and serving as a vast, diffuse power reserve.
The cost of the extra circuitry for the cars is about $400, but that pales in comparison to what the cars can earn: about $5 a day, or up to $1,800 a year, according to V2G pioneer and University of Delaware professor Willett M. Kempton. The project is still in its pilot phase, but these souped-up Mini Coopers aren’t the only cars with two-way batteries. In Japan, Nissan offers an option that lets you use your Leaf to power your house during a blackout.
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