Q&A: does renewable energy threaten KIUC’s reliability?

kiuc keeps the lights on

When KIUC Board chair Dennis Esaki sparred with Governor Linda Lingle last week on energy security versus reliability, there was much more not said than said.

Wot Esaki didn't say is that renewable energy is viewed as "unreliable."

Wot Esaki also didn't say is that "unreliability" is only a problem in the old paradigm of centralized power generation.

Nor did Esaki say that the definition of "reliable" is changing as we speak.

Let's hope Esaki and the rest of the KIUC board can be relied on to think about this challenge in new ways and tweak its strategy and practices.

...as they said they would do in the Strategic Plan...

Wouldn't want our member-owned utility (stuck as it is with 20th century tech) to get in the way of utilizing our wealth of renewable energy assets into the 21st century, now would we!

The simple fact is that KIUC's business model must change. As I posted back in February:

"I am concerned that, in the business-as-usual model, the prospect of members switching to renewables may be viewed as a competitive threat. I envision a hybrid business model that engages and serves all residential and commercial customers in the transition to a distributed, renewable energy system.”

The current business model is a fairly simple centralized engineering solution, where KIUC keeps large fossil-fuel generators constantly available to add power as energy demand fluctuates throughout the day. Oh, and, you would hopefully only "spin-up" just the power your need at the moment (and KIUC does a great job of generating only wot they can sell).

Still, in essence, this ensures that much of our generating capacity sits idle most of the time. And, we pay heavily for this excess capacity. Yet, that's just the way it is in the old model.

In practice, KIUC relies most on its newest generators, both in Kapaia and at Pt. Allen. BTW, this is good news, since these generators are both 'cleaner' and more efficient.

Still, in this business model, all our "intermittent" energy sources add nothing to this on-demand generation strategy. Some folks even argue that we'd need more fossil-fuel 'backup' if we had large solar generators on-line.

A new business model, on the other hand, would prolly focus on a fairly decentralized systems design, where the challenge to "keep the lights on" is met through a wide variety of generating sources and storage technologies. You would "back-up" your power peaks and spikes through storage, rather than through standby power generation.

In simple terms, this new business model would invest as much or more in energy storage as in energy generation.

Conceivably, the net investment required would go down as we dispose of aging fossil-fuel generators. These are dirty and expensive to maintain (just in case we might need them).

Conceivably, if we're smart about how all our resources interrelate, Kauai could create an energy storage system that is not only cheaper, but also helps solve all of our problems together.

For example, one of the most promising energy storage solutions is hydro pumped storage. Now, we suddenly have lots of underutilized water storage infrastructure, and lots of homes and businesses with intermittent energy to spare.

Wot if we used this excess energy whenever it was available to pump water into our reservoirs. Then, using small-scale hydro turbine tech, we could draw on this energy storage whenever it was needed.

Actually, wot we most need the KIUC Board to do now is start asking different questions about energy reliability. Instead of asking how to fit intermittent sources into their on-the-fly generating system, they might start asking how to begin shifting our centralized system toward a decentralized smart grid.

Never mind that KIUC follows NERC guidance in defining reliability in terms of backup generating capacity.

Lingle is rightwhen she says:

“If you can’t get the oil, reliable becomes a meaningless word.”

I'll post subsequently on new research and initiatives in the smart grid area that we can learn from.

For now, we might all start thinking some simple new tho'ts...such as:

Just because the sun doesn't shine at 7PM, when KIUC is fully fired-up to meet our daily peak demand, doesn't mean we can't use the power from the noonday sun to cook our meals at sunset.

From my vantage point, the one thing we can rely on is Kauai sun. All we gotta do is figure out how to use it...together with  all the local wind, wave, OTEC, hydro, biomass and other energy sources.

Then, we can kiss the oil barges goodbye!

Now that's reliability!

BTW, didja know KIUC has a single-source annual contract for 100% of its oil supply, with prices adjusted monthly? (Check it out yourself, in KIUC's unsearchable audited financial statement.)

How reliable is that?

Published by Ken on June 29th, 2008 tagged Energy, HI-specific

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