June 2018, By Heather Clancy for Green Biz.
It’s impossible and fiscally irresponsible to have discussions about future investments in grid infrastructure without considering their implications for regional resilience: the capability to withstand catastrophic weather or natural disasters without prolonged electricity outages.
That adage applies equally to both remote islands heavily reliant on offshore sources of fuel, such as Hawaii or Puerto Rico, and towns and cities on the mainland vulnerable to sea level rises or destructive winds, particularly coastal communities.
“Our existing system is highly vulnerable,” acknowledged Hawaii Public Utility Commissioner Jay Griffin during a VERGE Hawaii session last week about the benefits of “electrifying everything,” including transportation services and the heating and cooling loads of buildings.
The notion that solar plus storage technology plus intelligent local distribution services could short-circuit lengthy blackouts is appealing to many across the Hawaiian island archipelago, currently grappling with the system strain caused by unprecedented floods on Kauai and volcanic activity on the Big Island.
“The ability to fuel ourselves with electricity produced here — not just to have electricity but to fuel our transportation — that seems to me a much more resilient than the one we have today,” Griffin said. Currently, renewable energy accounts for about one-quarter of Hawaii’s electricity generation. The island imports millions of gallons of oil annually, to fuel its power plants, despite its mandate to transition to 100 percent renewables by 2045.
The good news is that the trend toward commercial investments in distributed generating resources — including wind, solar, biomass and energy storage systems — aligns closely with that goal. The trick is to ensure that all the stakeholders across a region — including local utilities, government agencies, businesses and private citizens — are considered in the strategic plan, according to many experts speaking last week at VERGE Hawaii.
Today, many relevant conversations about resilience happen in a vacuum, they noted. That is, they are confined to a single government agency or business. “We are planning specifically,” said Kyle Datta, general partner of investment firm Ulupono Initiative.
Here’s why sharing information matters
Cross-agency and cross-sector conversations are important for identifying scenarios that might affect response times or the locations chosen for investments in microgrids and generating resources.
For example, in Honolulu, there are about 20 water pumps used to manage the freshwater supply, but there currently is backup power in place for only seven. If some portion of the grid can’t be restored promptly, there could be a full-blown health crisis, Datta noted. Similarly, many electric utilities don’t spend enough time understanding the impact on telecommunications, he said. “What is the value of having an extra day of recovery?”
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