There’s lots of confusion, misconceptions and little information for consumers about Maui’s energy, which leaves us all feeling powerless in a controversy revolving around just that: Maui Power and Electricity.
At the beginning of 2015 drivers were ecstatic to see that gas prices were for once dropping and not rising. Gas barrels fell below $50 per barrel for the first time since 2009 and customers were lucky to see price per gallon go as low as $1.76 in some places. So when gas prices are lowering to this much is there hope that Maui’s energy costs could be lowering as well? On Maui Electric’s (MECO) website they have a list as to why energy costs are so high in Hawaii the number reason stated being oil costs. They also state that “It will take more investments in facilities to harness renewable resources and upgrade the electric grid.” Although they also state in their list that Maui Electric has already invested hundreds of millions of dollars into the current facilities we have which in turn has also raised costs for customers. So consumers are also wondering when MECO’s investment is going to roll over and start saving its consumers money.
Only about 30% of Maui’s energy comes from the renewable sources such as the winds farms, Kaheawa Wind and Auwahi Wind which power about 28,700 homes combined. However, as of December, 2014 only 7,150 solar electric systems, also known as photovoltaic (PV) systems have been installed on homes and houses here on Maui and only 36,396 in all of the Hawaii Islands. Even then, customers can only expect an average of 35% reduction of energy costs (not including what they paid for the installation itself). Then homes with PV systems get the rest of their power where most Maui residents get all of their energy: Maui Electric Company’s power plant on North Kihei road in Ma’alaea Harbor. To produce energy from there then takes gas and Maui’s residents know that even when gas prices were falling, they are still paying more than $3 per gallon.
In March of 2015 Kahului held the Maui Energy Conference which hosted over 300 energy leaders from Hawaii, the mainland and even Japan. One of the most important speakers was Alan Oshima, President and CEO of Hawaiian Electric Industries (HEI) who spoke about the benefits of the upcoming merger of Hawaiian Electric and NextEra Energy, a leading company in clean energy based out of Florida. NextEra will not only be acquiring (HEI) but also its banking subsidiary, American Savings Bank. This merger holds high expectations from HEI but also its customers. NextEra has won a few different awards for their environmental and sustainability conscious, winning awards from various firms such as the EI Energy Intelligence, Dow Jones Sustainability Index and even TreeLine USA, which is sponsored by the Arbor Day Foundation.
NextEra has set high goals with this merger and their plans for Hawaii. “NextEra Energy shares Hawaiian Electric’s vision of increasing renewable energy, modernizing its grid, reducing Hawaii’s dependence on imported oil, integrating more rooftop solar energy and, importantly, lowering customer bills. Hawaiian Electric has filed plans with the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission (PUC) that seek to enhance Hawaii’s energy future by lowering electric bills, giving customers more service options and nearly tripling the amount of distributed solar, while achieving among the nation’s highest levels of renewable energy by 2030.” Although there has been a petition swirling around opposing the merger by a few different green energy advocate groups such as Blue Planet Foundation in fear that NextEra will block rooftop solar but with the new bill passed by legislation on May 5th, House Bill 623, Hawaii will have to go more green with more renewable sources, with or without this merger. The bill passed was approved for 2.6 million dollars into making Hawaii 100 percent energy sustainable by 2045 but how much already comes from wind mills and solar panels? Thirty percent for Maui comes from renewable sources while all of Hawaii has only twenty percent renewable energy which makes Maui not only a leader for Hawaii but for all of the U.S. Auwahi Wind Farm owned by Sempra, U.S. Gas and Power has eight windmills which are able to produce 24 megawatts of power however MECO has only agreed to purchase 20 Megawatts.
The Auwahi Wind farm let Ho’oulu take a visit to their facility in Ulupalakua. There, they only have a small building with a smallknit group, two engineers who do maintenance on the windmills, the project manager, Steve Perrizo, the onsite biologist, Marie VanZandt who was kind enough to take us around the site and a few others. Even though the farm can produce so much energy a big problem for Maui, says Perrizo is storage, “It is possible for Maui to have all of its electricity generated by green energy by 2030. However, it will require additional renewable energy to be developed. In addition, extensive energy storage systems will be necessary for a reliable energy grid to deliver electricity to homes and businesses when it is needed.” Although the windmills on the Auwahi Wind Farm are known as the “Cadillac” of windmills due to their 360-degree turning power and individual weather machines that can find the best angle to get the maximum degree of wind they still require their power to be purchased in order to reach customers. However, Auwahi Wind Farm and Sempra U.S. Gas and Power are not just standing by waiting for MECO to buy their energy, they are in the front lines of Maui’s Energy bringing in representatives, reaching out to the community and speaking out for green energy. During the Maui Energy Conference they had four representatives to discuss with the leaders of the conference about their own insights, products, and operational efficiencies among other energy related topics. Auwahi Wind Farm and Sempra U.S. Gas and Power will definitely be on the spotlight in the coming years leading Maui closer to being 100 percent renewable by 2045.
Part of the problem though is not how to get this renewable energy but how we get that energy into our homes. Any renewable energy must go through MECO. There is a lot of pressure on MECO to better improve the energy and savings for its customers as the county of Maui has posted a request for proposals to study the options available for a new electricity model. This “Thirty-thousand dollar analysis is in response to the County’s concerns about the looming NextEra/Hawaiian Electric Industries mergers…and how it might affect area residents and business.” Mayor Alan Arakawa is concerned about whether NextEra is likely to keep their profits in Hawaii and that “This study will provide with that information, and will tell us if it would be best to start our own utility, forma a coop as Kauai did, allow the NextEra deal to go through or some other option. We need to make an information decision as a community.” He said in a press release early this May. There seems to be a lot of confusion and opposition to the NextEra/HECO merger and as a public servant, our Mayor is doing his duty to question the benefits to the people he serves. “We need to do everything in state to keep money in Hawaii.”
It’s important to Hawaii’s economy that all the money that we pay towards our utility continues to cycle in Hawaii, where as now, billions of dollars are spent on petroleum, which goes out of state. Arakawa told NPR in a recent interview that “the model of the old electric company is, should I say, stone age.”
MECO is not a progressive as they were when they were offering tax breaks to those with solar panel PV systems but now are actually restricting commercial use of them. Arakawa also told NPR “I don’t understand why we don’t explore newer technology. [It’s] the government’s job to step in and say what is better for the community.” and in regards to the county’s meetings with MECO, “we never get a clean answer but we see the profit margins are substantial. Why aren’t they using it for the community savings?”
We all need to do our research and follow the money. At the hands of our only utility provider, are their goals really to save its consumers money? Or take advantage and only answer to their shareholders? If you’ve ever checked the HEI’s stock price, you might get your answer. Not everyone can afford a new PV system but anyone can take the time to get their voices heard. On June 25, 2015 a contract will start with a yet undecided proposal to analysis what options for utility will be best for Maui. This analysis could make or break the future of renewable energy for Maui’s community and greatly affect the prices we pay for utilities.