Thursday, January 08, 2009


How Hawaii can stay powered up when it rains and switch to a bright alternative energy future

by Larry Geller

Old timers may remember when telephones came in only one color (black) and had those brass bells inside that actually rang. A finger was stuck into a hole to rotate a dial, and that’s how you called someone. The phone was big and black and long distance charges were outrageous, though a bit lower on Sundays, which is when our family called each other. Or you could stay up very late at night. It was illegal to own your own phone. Nor could you set up a company to innovate and compete. There was no voicemail, you had to hire an answering service. If you called for repair, chances are—you’d get a busy signal (remember those?).

Our phone system was outdated, technically backwards, and very expensive for us consumers. It was the same around the world, where telecommunications was typically a reserved government monopoly.

Things changed when AT&T was broken up.

Power Line We’re at that point now with the nation’s electrical power grid.

Let’s look at Hawaii. Our power distribution is run by monopoly providers of electrical power. We don’t know if there is a better, cheaper, more cost-effective way to distribute power because it’s in the hands of the sole providers. All we learn about our power grid is what they tell us—in other words, they have a monopoly on information as well. If lightning strikes and we’re all in the dark, they tell us why that had to happen.

I found a similar analogy to the phone situation on a Galvin Electricity Initiative website, and would like to quote them:

The Elements of the Perfect Power System
In a Perfect Power System, consumers will have control over their own energy destiny, rather than having it imposed upon them by a sole supplier. Each customer will decide — and get — the system and services that are perfect for them.

Smart Microgrids: The Foundation Of The Perfect Power System
Over the past 50 years, America’s electric power system — the grid — has been starved of innovation and technical updates, despite significant increases in consumer demand for electricity. As a result, the current system has become incapable of meeting the growing needs of 21st century consumers.

Follow those links. Here’s a snippet from the first one, on reliability. Note that it does not call for more distribution lines, as HECO has said it needed (though we cannot say new lines won’t be needed in Hawaii, check this out):

Reliability: Working in real time, these sensors and controllers can prevent most power disturbances caused by supply interruptions or congestion before they happen. Should a portion of the utility grid go out, these controllers can proactively move power around the damaged portion and use locally distributed clean power generation to avoid any interruption in service.

Efficiency: This system will also reduce the need for new power lines and generating plants because it will ensure every line and power plant is used most efficiently at all times. What’s more, providing customers and their electric appliances with the ability to automatically respond to power demand and price signals will fundamentally increase the efficiency of electricity use while significantly cutting power costs.

Security: These smart systems will be able to instantaneously wall off or “island” problem areas on the grid so that they do not affect other parts. This will minimize the damage and disruption in case of a terrorist attack or natural disaster.

Now, we’re an island state, a very peculiar situation. We can’t buy power from another region if we need it. All the more reason, I suggest, why we should be looking into the methods described in these articles and by these experts. One thing they call for is more local generation and local storage of power. This seems to make sense so many ways. It also fits the needs of renewable energy providers.

Why look to outside experts for advice on Hawaii’s future power infrastructure? If you were interested in breaking up AT&T’s monopoly, would you assign the job to AT&T? Of course not.

If we are interested in breaking up the power monopoly in Hawaii, should we assign the job to HECO? Of course not.

We need to investigate the latest technology to see if it fits. Not to see if it fits HECO, but to see if it fits Hawaii’s needs.

What exactly are we doing? We have a new energy initiative that fails to break up the monopoly. The Governor’s budget, just submitted, wants to fatten up DBEDT’s payroll with new positions to think about what they might do in the future, while the future passes us by (take for example the Seattle firm that has filed papers to put wave and wind generators in our Penguin Bank whale sanctuary):

To advance the State’s goal of energy independence, the Administration is proposing
investments in the development of clean, renewable energy sources. This includes an
internal reallocation of resources within the Department of Business, Economic
Development and Tourism for 30 positions and $3.3 million each year. [news release, 12/22/2008]

That’s a bunch of $110,000 each positions. In the time it takes them to find office space, buy typewriters and fax machines, something real could be done with all that money. We don’t need to fatten up government, particularly a money sink like DBEDT. I understand, for example, that they are still working on hydrogen power while the governor missed an important meeting with president-elect Obama because she thought 110,000 electric car recharging stations were going to be the way we’ll go. Which is it to be? Hydrogen stations? Recharging stations? Will anyone invest in hydrogen if they know the governor has settled on battery recharging? Perhaps she should speak with Ted Liu and make up their minds. Experimentation is good and necessary, but neither is likely to happen if we leave it to DBEDT.

Let’s go back to the Galvin web pages. Isn’t this what Hawaii needs also?

As a leader in the movement for quality management, Galvin believed that blackouts didn’t have to happen — ever. With innovation, leadership and focus, perfection is possible, even in something as vast and complex as the U.S. electric power system.

In the first phase of the project, Galvin and Executive Director Kurt Yeager brought together more than 60 independent experts in power system design and advanced technology and encouraged them to think beyond conventional infrastructure and regulatory issues.

Instead, these experts focused on what it is consumers — both residential and business — want and need from the power system and on the necessary components for creating a system that meets those needs.

The resulting reports outline the existing technology to build such a system, and exactly what such a system would look like on both the consumer and the business sides.

The reports also include a comprehensive scenario-based analysis of consumer needs, an assessment of potential innovations in electric energy technologies, and functional specifications for achieving the perfect power system.

Let me repeat what they think: blackouts didn’t have to happen — ever. That should be our goal in Hawaii.

A short article from the IEEE Institute newssheet, Perfecting the power grid, explains how microgrids fit in (snippet):

MICROGRIDS Reliability can also be increased by dividing the power system into microgrids, which are local power networks with a degree of self-sufficiency. A microgrid could be a single home or an area with several small generators, like a university campus. With those resources, Yeager says, “even if something knocks over the power poles, enough power should be available from local generation and storage, possibly including the batteries of plug-in hybrid vehicles, to maintain power service for hours or days. There’s much of this already in Europe, and Tokyo Electric Power is a world leader in the field. But in the United States, the regulated business model makes this harder to achieve.” Although local generators can’t match large power plants’ economies of scale, their proximity to users lets more power get through without the resistive and other power losses that now waste 10 to 15 percent of the power in long-distance transmission lines.

Another should be to create an environment where renewable energy sources and home generating systems can interconnect efficiently. Having local storage is part of this, as is a robust grid that can not only distribute intermittent power efficiently, but which can take advantage of it when necessary. As time passes, we will want to give precedence to renewable energy, which means that the fossil-fuel generators will be idled more and more, except when needed. So we’ll need regulatory changes, since HECO survives and thrives, at present by selling us power based on oil.

Let’s get busy with something real. I suggest that to do that we need to check out modern power grids and how we can use them.



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