Are rolling blackouts the price Hawaii must pay for clean energy?

If you spent part of this week sitting in the dark without any electricity, you probably have some questions about the state’s energy plan. So do I.

Power shortages on Monday forced Hawaiian Electric Co. to institute rolling blackouts that left 120,000 customers on the island without power for 30-minute periods throughout the late afternoon and evening.

HECO has blamed those shortages on bad weather, problems at the H-POWER and Waiau power plants, and inadequate solar and wind reserve power.

But as a policy issue, the blackouts have raised questions about why state regulators were comfortable with requiring HECO to shut down its only remaining coal power plant in September 2022 when it was problematic that it had adequate energy reserves to compensate.

State Sen. Glenn Wakai told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that the blackouts were evidence that closing the coal plant was premature.

“The recent rains showed us solar, wind and batteries are incapable of ensuring we have a reliable grid,” he said.

In fairness, at least one case of rolling blackouts happened a few years before the coal plant was shut down, in 2015, which affected 27,000 customers.

But one outage from nine years ago doesn’t negate the fact that the state still seems to be over its head when it comes to grid reliability and its ambitious renewable energy goals.

The fact is, we are being squeezed between two big projects: HECO’s efforts to upgrade its 80-year-old electrical infrastructure, and the plans of state lawmakers to have Hawaii achieve “net zero” carbon emissions” by 2045 through greater reliance on renewable energy sources.

Both are complex endeavors in themselves. Having them happen simultaneously highlights our need for reliable backup power.

The main problem with renewables is that they seem to work well only under ideal weather conditions — and in the case this week, a merely moderate storm was enough to turn out the lights. In other words, renewables are not reliable.

Combine that with the problems that go along with HECO’s existing antiquated power grid and we’re bound to see more rolling blackouts in the future.

Basically, it’s looking like state lawmakers have rushed into switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources before Hawaii is really ready for it.

Improving Hawaii’s electric grid is critical. Exploration of sustainable energy is also important. But if we want our lights to stay on during rough weather, we need to ask tough questions about the feasibility of the state’s renewable energy mandates — and demand good answers.

This commentary was Keli‘i Akina’s weekly “President’s Corner” column for Jan. 13, 2024. If you would like to have his columns emailed to you on a regular basis, please call 808-864-1776 or email info@grassrootinstitute.org.

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