Sunday, March 08, 2009


Does HECO have the veto over Hawaii’s energy future?

by Larry Geller

You’re probably reading this on a computer plugged into the wall. Electricity made by your local utility (HECO on Oahu) lights up your screen, has made the espresso you’re sipping, and might even be washing the dishes or doing the laundry for you. There’s just about enough electricity to take care of all of us. Even with air conditioners blasting away on a hot day, we have sufficient.

Now, the idea these days is to replace our dependency on imported petroleum products with renewable energy from natural sources. If we do that, then guess what—we need to unplug from and then decommission some of the imported oil guzzlers. We can’t have both. It’s either alternative energy or dinosaur energy. Right? What am I missing here?

After I wrote the previous article earlier today, I kept coming back to the one sentence I quoted from Rob Perez’ article:

Besides the environmental obstacles, one of the biggest hurdles could be whether the company can reach agreement to sell the Penguin Bank power to Hawaiian Electric Co. [Grays Harbor president] Hamner said he has been told by a state renewable energy expert that HECO might not need all that electricity.

So if HECO has the veto on our alternative energy plans, even the ambitious plans pushed by the Lingle administration, then are we in a situation of having to wait for their generators to rust before they will be replaced? Are those plans just the usual shibai?

Of course. They don’t need any of that electricity. It would only cut into their profits. But the credibility gap is deeper than that, and wider than just this Grays Harbor project.

When a utility plans to install new generating capacity they go through a process with state regulators. With approval is the expectation that the utility will recoup its investment over so many years. Generators and switchgear are quite expensive. This is reasonable. So how do you then tell a utility which is busy bolting down their next big generator to back off the bolts, pack it up, and see if Costco will take it back?

This project, not conceived in Hawaii (and that is telling on its own), could be the reality check on our energy future.

By the way, not all sources of alternative energy are intermittent. I have not been a fan of wind power because in some ways I think it is a setup by conventional utilities to assure failure. People object to the unsightly turbines and yes, they can be highly intermittent. Solar power is similar, Waves, OTEC, geothermal and perhaps others are or can be more steady. Utilities may be happier supporting big wind turbine projects while expecting that the community will object to them wherever they are sited, and then, of course, the utility decides to respect the people’s wishes. And so no wind farm.

But never mind that for now. We have not gotten to step one if HECO, with no incentive to replace itself any time soon, can simply block any alternative energy initiative as that nagging paragraph seems to indicate they can.


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