Blackouts cast doubt on renewable energy mandates

The following commentary was originally published in the Hawaii Filipino Chronicle on Feb. 4, 2024.

Hawaii’s rolling blackouts on Jan. 8 gave residents a lot of time to wonder whether this could become a regular occurrence on the state’s journey to reach 100% renewable energy by the year 2045.

It appears Hawaii lawmakers might have been a little too ambitious when they decided in 2015 to become the first state in the nation to set that audacious policy goal.

Now, almost 10 years later, with rolling blackouts possibly looming in our future, state lawmakers probably should reconsider their original conversion timetable — if not ask whether the 100% renewable energy goal is feasible at all.

There are many reasons to think that it isn’t — especially in Hawaii.

In fact, Hawaiian Electric blamed reduced solar and wind power as a partial cause of the blackouts, along with several of its fossil-fuel generators being down for maintenance and two others, each over 70 years old, experiencing operating problems.

Making matters worse, HECO couldn’t draw power from the AES coal plant since the state forced that to close in September 2022 — even though it had been in operation for only 30 years, which is young by coal plant standards.

The AES coal plant supplied 180 megawatts of electricity that could have helped prevent or at least mitigate the rolling blackouts.

Basically, HECO simply ran short on Jan. 8 of so-called firm power, which the U.S. Energy Information Administration defines as “power or power-producing capacity intended to be available at all times during the period covered by a guaranteed commitment to deliver, even under adverse conditions.”

Solar and wind turbines are generally not considered to be firm power since sometimes the sun doesn’t shine and the winds don’t blow.

To be fair, Hawaiian Electric had a rolling blackout episode several years before the coal plant was shuttered. But the difference now is that Oahu relies on twice as much renewable energy today as it did in 2015 — 987 megawatts versus 470 megawatts, respectively — meaning Oahu’s electrical grid is becoming more vulnerable to cloudy skies and calm winds.

That, in turn, means that as the state ramps up its share of renewable sources, residents might be checking the weather to see whether they might be eating dinner by candlelight.

A supposed solution to this problem is to use renewable biofuels, such as those derived from agricultural products. But they aren’t cheap. In fact, they are 70% to 130% more expensive than fossil fuels, which would translate into higher energy costs for Hawaii consumers who already are paying triple for their power compared to consumers on the mainland.

Large batteries won’t help much either, since they also rely increasingly on finicky renewable sources that might fail under “adverse conditions” — which is what happened on Jan. 8.

All of which is to say, our lawmakers need to get serious about whether their quest to achieve 100% renewable energy by 2045 is in the best interest of Hawaii.

At the very least, they should be asking whether the end date should be pushed off sometime further into the future, perhaps after other states have dealt with the more novel issues involved in reaching the 100% goal.

Or maybe they could just abandon Hawaii’s energy mandates altogether, which might be the best way to allow flexibility and choice while keeping our electric bills low and home and office lights on.

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