Energy experts discuss grid resiliency, redesign against external threats

  • HELCO President Jay Ignacio answers a question regarding power generation after PGV shut down at the NELHA Energy Summit Wednesday at the Sheraton Kona Resort and Spa at Keauhou Bay. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Panelists Feng Qiu, Bill Parks, Jay Ignacio and Kyle Datta take questions from the audience at the NELHA Energy Summit Wednesday at the Sheraton Kona Resort and Spa at Keauhou Bay. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

KAILUA-KONA — Since its inception, the “R” in renewables has stood for reliability.

In the aftermath of a violent volcanic eruption and close calls with multiple tropical storms this year, energy leaders in Hawaii are more frequently uttering another “R” word they say is just as critical — resiliency.


The components of the concept were part of a panel discussion Wednesday at a conference on energy storage trends and opportunities convened by the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority and held at the Sheraton Kona at Keauhou Bay.

“This issue of resiliency will largely define the future trajectory of renewable energy because of how the change in climate … is going to impact that,” said Kyle Datta, from New Energy Partners.

Resilience is the ability of an energy system to promptly rebound in the face of low-probability, high-impact events like lava flows and hurricanes.

Beyond rapid recovery, its elements include adaptability, quality site selection and robustness, or the ability to withstand forces of nature absent failure. Hardening, or reinforcing, system infrastructure is also integral.

According to Datta, building out an appropriately resilient system in Hawaii would also mean a design overhaul on both transmission and distribution systems, relying instead on isolated microgrids functioning as part of mini-grids that comprise the main grid.

“We fundamentally have to rethink the grid architecture before we run down the path of modernizing it,” Datta said, “This change will be profound, and it’s just starting now.”

State of preparation?

Research conducted in the wake of Hurricanes Sandy and Maria indicates it takes only three days without power before cracks in social framework become evident. After a week, serious and myriad public health issues ensue.

Jay Ignacio, president of Hawaii Electric Light Company (HELCO), detailed for the audience resiliency within the county’s power grid. Strengths of the system include diversity, as generation happens in West Hawaii, East Hawaii and Hamakua tied together with four transmission lines, he said. Also, none of the county’s power plants are coastal, isolating them from tsunami threats.

The entire island nearly lost power in 2006 following an earthquake when the shaking affected older protected relays tasked with monitoring the system. But that near-disaster actually improved infrastructure. Since that time, HELCO has conducted relay replacements, anchored transformers and locked down their fuses, and made other structural improvements.

A 6.9-magnitude earthquake that coincided with Kilauea’s most recent eruptive activity and mirrored the 2006 event didn’t create nearly the same consequences, Ignacio said.

The eruption did affect 935 customers, claimed 835 poles and knocked out 229 transformers. The Pohoiki switching station was also destroyed and the Puna Geothermal Venture (PGV), which generated 38 megawatts a year, was isolated.

Confident in the system’s resilience aside from direct lava flows, Ignacio said the county’s greatest vulnerability is the threat the combination of high winds and tall, frail albizia trees pose to power lines.

“We need to do more,” Ignacio said. “It can’t just be the utility. It’s got to be every neighborhood. It’s got to be state. It’s got to be the county to jump on board to manage these trees.”

As for PGV, Ignacio said the company has expressed desire to come back online. Currently, the greatest challenges are access to the facility and the loss of the switching station. Ignacio believes most of PGV’s infrastructure remains unscathed save for a well or two.

The next steps reassuming operations at PGV are getting power to its station to test the equipment then checking the quality of the wells. After that, permitting at the county and state levels would be required.

Ignacio said the grid’s capacity was 270 MW before losing the 38 MW at PGV. The island currently eats up about 180 MW annually. The smaller margin, however, has limited planned maintenance, rendering it more difficult.

Site selection, an important element of resiliency, is trickier with geothermal power. HELCO put out an request for proposals in recent years for another geothermal project, wanting to locate it in West Hawaii for diversification purposes.

However, Ignacio said every bid that came in wanted to locate in the East Rift Zone where heat is closest to the surface, despite the potential peril.


Datta spent his portion of the panel pitching what he believes is the future of grid design, a cellular structure of microgrids with their own power supplies and the capability to isolate themselves from the main grid.

The reconfiguration would be a move away from central power plants energizing the entire grid. Hawaii County is set up fairly well for the transition because power is generated at different points across the island, he said, meaning microgrids could exist in Kona, Waimea, Hilo and Ka‘u.

Mini-grid systems split by districts would include microgrids within them, all of which would be part of a the main, cellular system.

“The microgrids, if they stay on after the storm, they can help re-energize the mini-grids,” Datta said. “The mini-grids then help re-energize the main grid. So it’s sort of a cascading up (effect).”

Hawaii’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC) would decide on the viability of such plans, which Datta said would include bids for new projects and have to “tie into how you’re rewarded for making or not making money.”

He added the process has already begun, with the PUC announcing last week its intention to include resiliency in the utility metrics for how utilities are financially rewarded.

The next step in the process is figuring out the cost of redesign and how to socialize that cost, Datta said.

Ignacio said mini-grids are part of HELCO’s strategy moving forward but that it doesn’t have the equipment necessary.


“We’re looking at a system where we can actually put in equipment so that (the) re-establishment of the entire grid from mini-grids can be done autonomously,” Ignacio said.

He added HELCO supports microgrids in certain applications, for instance in North Kohala, where the utility has only one, 60-year-old transmission line. Creation of a microgrid there so HELCO can complete construction on the line is under consideration.

  1. Buds4All December 6, 2018 5:04 am

    Honestly I would be more concerned with internal threats, like the way it is run.

  2. 4whatitsworth December 6, 2018 5:32 am

    I would say that “R” is for ripoff. Washington state and Idaho pay .08 a KWH and we pay .33. When fuel prices go up our electricity goes up, and when fuel prices go down our electricity prices go up. WTF?

    1. Pest Outwest December 6, 2018 1:19 pm

      Washington state has dams. We have to burn oil for the most part. There’s a difference in cost!

  3. LimeyinHi December 6, 2018 8:28 am

    Micro grid is the answer. Get some of the new generation lithium ion batteries, solar panels have never been cheaper. Make your own electricity, store it and use it. No need for Helco. It will be the way in the future.

    1. beyond kona December 6, 2018 4:01 pm

      The future is here.

  4. Sara Steiner-jackson December 6, 2018 8:42 am

    No more PGV, their underground drill holes have got to be busted by all the earthquakes and fractures by the lava erupting out of 24 fissures in a beautiful fan shape directly in front of their pollution plant. They have continuously operated since 2014 without an air quality permit with blessings from the State, and residents have been poisoned for 30 years and have to sue because the State and County do not give a rats ass about the safety of the residents living by PGV, and we are waiting since 2015 for a contested case on their expired air pollution permit.

    We now have 120 MW of solar coming on, so no, we don’t need PGV to ruin our island anymore!!!

  5. KonaDude December 10, 2018 7:57 am

    The best way to protest is to just have your power disconnected, just do it and stop complaining…>>

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