Hawai‘i Natural Energy Institute

Guiding the State Toward Energy Independence

With a deep blue ocean, gentle trade winds and endless sunshine—Hawai‘i is a picture-perfect postcard paradise. 

However, as the most geographically isolated population center on Earth and as the most petroleum dependent state in the United States, Hawai‘i has the dubious distinction of owning the highest electricity rates in the country—at almost twice the national average. Fortunately for island residents, many of the natural resources that make Hawaiʻi a tropical vacation destination—also serve as abundant sources of clean energy.  

Recognizing the importance of clean and renewable energy resources to the future of Hawai‘i, the State of Hawai‘i and the U.S. Department of Energy embarked on the Hawai‘i Clean Energy Initiative (HCEI) in 2008—setting an ambitious goal to derive 70 percent its power from energy efficiency and renewable energy by 2030. In 2014, the target was reset to achieve a clean energy goal of 100 percent by 2045—making Hawai‘i the first state to make such a bold commitment with a specific timeframe.

While this may seem like a daunting task for the state, there has been a research group diligently working behind-the-scenes toward the same goal.  Established at the height of the energy crisis in the 1970s, the Hawai‘i Natural Energy Institute (HNEI) based in the School of Ocean and Earth Sciences and Technology (SOEST) at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, was created to serve as a focal point for multidisciplinary research and education on the sustainable energy in Hawai‘i. In 2007, the Hawai‘i State Legislature created a statue for HNEI to coordinate and undertake in the development of Hawai‘i’s natural energy resources and in coordination with state and federal agencies—explore national and global energy solutions. 

An electric vehicle at the Fast-Fill hydrogen fueling station at Marine Corps Base Hawai‘i.
Photo: Mitch McEwan, HNEI

Last June, HNEI, in partnership with GE Energy Consulting, completed an analysis identifying various scenarios that would allow the islands of O‘ahu and Maui to surpass Hawai‘i’s 2020 renewable energy targets while lowering electricity costs.

The study evaluated various mixes of renewable energy generation (primarily wind and solar), different island-interconnection strategies, and changes to utility operations to identify cost-effective pathways to meet the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) targets. Funding for the Hawai‘i RPS Study was provided by the U.S. Department of Energy and the State of Hawai‘i via the Energy Systems Development Special Fund that receives a portion of the State’s barrel tax.

“This analysis shows that Hawai‘i can cost-effectively achieve and even exceed the 30 percent goal for 2020 mandated by earlier legislation,” said John Cole, HNEI project leader. “For ACT 97, which requires 100 percent renewable electrical energy by 2045, this study provides a valuable tool to assess potential pathways to meet this aggressive goal while also maintaining a reliable system for everyone.”

Cole added, “The challenge with achieving 100 percent renewable energy has more to do with how to reliably store and distribute the electricity than with how the electricity is generated. The current grid isn’t flexible enough to respond to rapid changes in energy supply or demand, and energy storage is not yet cost effective. Intermittent sources like wind and solar are often ‘curtailed’ or purposely restricted, which is a waste of good energy.”

The study, which considered the islands of O‘ahu and Maui, used the GE Multi-Area Production Simulation (MAPS) model to simulate the electric power system operation with varying amounts of utility-scale wind and solar, as well as increasing amounts of distributed rooftop solar photovoltaics (PV). The team coordinated with the local utility company to identify and model the generation mix expected to be in place by 2020.

A variety of utility operational changes including reduced minimums on thermal units, thermal unit cycling, demand response, alternate fuels (e.g., Liquefied Natural Gas or LNG) and adjustments to ancillary service procurement were evaluated in the analysis. Another GE model, the Multi-Area Reliability Simulation (MARS), was used to assess system reliability while operating with a significant contribution of intermittent wind and solar generation.

In addition to estimating production cost savings as reported in previous studies, this work also developed preliminary economic models to estimate the cost of additional power purchases, new grid equipment and operational changes. This work, did not consider distribution level impacts or limitations, or the costs associated with changes to the distribution system.

“This modeling provides an independent look at the utility system and how changes to it and its operations can affect its costs and ability to accept additional renewables,” said Richard Rocheleau, director of HNEI. “The report and additional analyses that build upon it will provide regulators and other stakeholders with valuable information as we continue reducing our dependence on fossil fuels.”

Key findings of the study include:

  • High levels of intermittent renewable energy generation with minimal curtailment can be achieved with modifications to electric system operations and infrastructure expected by 2020. With these changes, the islands of O‘ahu and Maui can surpass the 2020 RPS goal while lowering electricity costs and increasing the reliability of the grid with or without island interconnection.
  • Balanced growth of wind and utility-scale and distributed solar was shown to help reduce the aggregate variability and intermittency and the need for ancillary services on the grid relative to continued expansion of a single resource type.
  • The use of natural gas as a transition fuel has the potential to substantially lower the cost of electricity, depending on cost projections for LNG and oil. The price will be dependent on the volume of LNG consumed, hence any cost benefit decreases as renewable penetration increases.
  • Increased use of energy efficiency, demand response, and storage will be needed to maintain grid reliability with fewer thermal generators on the system, as is projected by the utility.
  • Inter-island transmission can facilitate more efficient use of resources, contribute to increased grid reliability, and enable increased renewable penetration by providing expanded siting options.

HNEI and GE are continuing this work, including analysis of frequency stability at both the system and distribution levels with larger amounts of wind and solar; a more detailed evaluation of the value (cost/benefit) of mitigation measures including advanced grid technologies such as storage, demand response and other ancillary services; an assessment of the impact of advanced transportation systems such as electric, and fuel-cell electric vehicles; and the risk of fuel price volatility. An initial report on the frequency stability of the Oʻahu grid with very high penetrations of rooftop solar was completed in April 2016, with additional reports to soon follow.

By harnessing its abundant natural energy resources, Hawai‘i can end its reliance upon imported oil, help to reduce the effects of global warming and to help preserve its island paradise—thanks in part to the hard-working, behind-the-scenes researchers at the Hawai‘i Natural Energy Institute.

A NWEI Azura wave energy conversion device deployed at the U.S. Navy’s Wave Energy Test Site (WETS) off Kāne‘ohe, O‘ahu. HNEI provides research support to the site.