Saturday, December 27, 2008


Can we excuse repeated power grid failures on Oahu?

by Larry Geller

Our power came back at 5:03 a.m. today (Saturday). Looking up Nuuanu Valley, it is still black at this writing. There are no traffic lights and no lights on the H-1. In the distance, lightning still flashes occasionally.

All it took was a storm to knock out the entire island. Even the Kapolei/Makakilo area, which had apparently stayed up somehow, is reported to have dropped into darkness at 8:30 p.m. last night.

It's not just dark. The fragility of Oahu's power distribution system causes lost business, lost food in open refrigerator cases in stores, and health problems for those dependent on electricity. It stops industry and commerce, disrupts flight plans, and strands people on upper levels of tall buildings.

It even prevented the Advertiser from printing. Perhaps testing the future, portions of the paper are available for you to download from their website.

Here's the excuse:

The loss of four major transmission lines from Hawaiian Electric's Kahe power plant last night triggered an island-wide blackout, the utility said in a press release. At 9:15 p.m., HECO was advising customers to expect the outage to last at least through the night.

HECO said that at 6:30 p.m., the loss of power created instability on the system, which resulted in generating units tripping off in order to protect the grid from damage, One generating unit remained online serving the Waianae coast and Makakilo/Kapolei areas. However, that unit tripped off at about 8:30.

Why did that unit trip off at about 8:30? There was a portion of the island that didn't lose power, until the HECO grid failed them also.

The Legislature might consider investing a few bucks in an independent, outside engineering review of the adequacy of Oahu's power infrastructure, including what improvements are necessary to make it reliable. If Obama provides states with money to improve infrastructure, we might consider spending some of it to get a power distribution system that is not as fragile as eggshells.

Going further, we need to have a flexible, reliable, nimble power grid, most likely run by an independent entity, so that we can begin to install alternative energy on both a large and small scale. Wave and wind power must ultimately be plugged into our power grid, and if you've found a way to generate more power in your home than you use, you should be able to sell it to the grid for others to use. And the grid needs to stay up through all that.

Recall that the Big Island earthquake somehow caused Oahu's power to fail. As I look outside my window and see lightning flashes in the distance, I'm glad I took the advice of a power engineer I spoke to when I first came to Hawaii in 1988: he said, buy the biggest UPS you can afford to take care of your computers and electronics, and get a power conditioner too. Otherwise it could cost you.

We did that. I still have the power conditioner, they're impossible to find in consumer electronics stores now. Last night we were serenaded in the dark by the chirping sounds of UPS units under the computer table and around the house making sure the TV, phones, and other electronics were protected.

We dined with the aid of our battery camping lanterns. We didn't lose any food. I'm wondering what will happen to the folks up Nuuanu Valley who still lack power, though.

Oh, one last note: when power came on at one instance in the past, I measured 145 volts coming out of the wall socket. The elevators had frozen up with all the floor call buttons illuminated. A few more volts would have fried not only the elevators but people's TVs and electronics. Yes, that can happen, when you have high-tech gizmos plugged into a third-world power system.

Let's get this thing fixed. Oops, the lightning is getting closer and closer....


OPEC will continue to cut production until they achieve their desired 80-100 per barrel again. We are at their mercy. We really need to get on about the business of becoming energy independent. This past year and the record gas prices played a huge part in our economic meltdown and seriously damaged our economy and society.We keep planning to spend BILLIONS on bailouts and stimulus plans.Bail us out of our dependence on foreign oil. Make electric plug in car technology more affordable. I just read an amazing new book by Jeff Wilson called The Manhattan Project of 2009 Energy Independence Now. It cost the equivalent of 60 cents a gallon to drive an electric plug in car. The electric could be generated from wind or solar. Get with it! Utilize free sources such as wind and solar. In fact, if all gasoline cars, trucks, and suv’s instead had plug-in electric drive trains, the amount of electricity needed to replace gasoline is about equal to the estimated wind energy potential of the state of North Dakota. Stop throwing away money on things that don't work. Invest in America and it's energy independence. Create cheap clean energy, create millions of badly needed green collar jobs. Put America back to work. It is a win-win situation. We have to become more proactive citizens, educate ourselves and demand our elected officials move this country forward into the era of energy independence. We need to stop talking about becoming energy independent and do everything in our power to make it happen. We need to use some of those bailout billions to invest in America becoming Energy Independent!

It seems that the only way HECO has to cope with losing one generator or powerline is to drop the whole island off the line. There's got to be a better way!


I'd like to point out that according to HECO, it was the fully integrated nature of their grid system that caused this. One strike of lightning caused a cascading series of shut downs for the whole grid. I think we can now be happy that Waahila Ridge didn't help that integration problem. I remember HECO reps telling everyone how those gigantic poles would help protect against this kind of blackout by making everything more integrated. Yet, it looks like, for a second time in a few years, the integration has caused a total blackout.

Coupla quick points:

I agree with your call for an independent review. Last night's blackout didn't rise to the level of a crisis (for most of us). But it struck me as rather absurd that the islandwide grid was so vulnerable to an incident on one line. Certainly the technology exists to isolate the problems and preventing them from taking down the whole system?

A quick response to "Beyond Green":

The electric car proposal needs to be examined seriously, and intelligently, and not just optimistically. Your statement:

"It cost the equivalent of 60 cents a gallon to drive an electric plug in car," is way off scale. Shai Agassi, the entrepreneur, (er, "hustler") who recently breezed into town sweet-talking the Governor into loving his electric car plan, has repeatedly said it will require the price of gasoline rise to $4.50 for his cars to be competitive.

Alternative energy sources may (or may not) be cost competitive to carbon fuels. A sharp pencil can give us some answers. Certainly, we need to include the costs of environmental degradation and climate change in those calculations. But let's not stumble into the future with our eyes blurred. "Bio-fuels" were sounding awfully attractive to a lot of greenminded people about a year ago. Today, we see the downside of that approach. Let's not run into anything too fast, committing ourselves to another fast-talking corporate schemer.

Maybe HECO intentionally let the system trip off entirely so as to show a greater 'need' for the smartgrid power distribution funding that Obama says will be a part of his early stimulus package? Wouldn't put it past 'em.

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