WAILUKU - While experts say Maui, along with the rest of Hawaii, is becoming a key testing ground for the future of renewable industries, they also say the development of "smart grid" technology will be just as critical to building a green-energy infrastructure.
A smart grid is an electrical power grid that is built to adjust to the ebb and flow of energy sources that depend on wind, sun and other natural elements. Without developing a grid that can store power when the sun is shining - and draw from another source when it's cloudy - too much dependence on all these renewable sources could literally leave a lot of people in the dark, experts say.
A smart grid uses wireless technology, sophisticated software and a network of sensors in homes, power stations and transmission lines to instantaneously move electricity around where it's needed or kick in storage supplies when fluctuating renewable energy sources have sudden dips.
Speaking last week to local business leaders at the University of Hawaii Maui College, James Griffin of the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute showed on a chart how the wind farm above Maalaea lost all outgoing electricity in seconds - and without any warning - when the wind died.
Griffin spoke at the Sustainable Institute of Maui at the college.
"Maui is already a leader, but the grid here is limited," he said. "Fluctuations for renewable energies is the reason for concern. As more renewables come online, the potential for problems increases.
James Griffin said his upcoming project will be to develop a pilot smart grid project in Maui Meadows.
Participating households will be able to view their electricity bills and energy-eater updates in real time on laptops and smart phones, while MECO will get new electricity-tracking and use-prediction software, he said.
"We are definitely breaking ground, though" he said.
Griffin said his upcoming project will be to develop a pilot smart grid project in Maui Meadows, installing at least 200 high-tech energy monitors in homes and on electrical infrastructure including transmission lines and power stations.
The two-year, $14 million project is being done in partnership with MECO and the U.S. Department of Energy.
Participating households will be able to view their electricity bills and energy-eater updates in real time on laptops and smart phones, while MECO will get new electricity-tracking and use-prediction software, Griffin said.
A widespread smart grid could also make the system two-way, so homes with solar panels and small wind turbines could sell power to MECO.
The project will last two years, he said.
For once, the Valley Isle's isolation and almost total dependence on foreign oil appears to be a plus, he said.
The state has mandated that Hawaii convert to 40 percent renewable energy sources and increase efficiency by 30 percent by 2030, noted his colleague Michael Chang.
"Last year, 80 percent of Maui's electricity came from diesel," Griffin said. "Maui spent $150 million last year on oil."
Earlier this year, MECO President Ed Reinhardt called on more renewable energy projects to come to Maui and produce at least 50 megawatts.
Currently, MECO's normal peak output at its two diesel-run plants is a combined 200 megawatts, with a total capacity of more than 260 megawatts, including energy from a bagasse-burning plant at Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar's Puunene mill.
Solutions to the energy crisis may seem simple enough: Just keep adding more renewable energy sources. But Griffin and Reinhardt have said the island couldn't harness most of that new energy without building battery storage facilities, too. None exist on Maui today, although a few are in the works.
Griffin also said MECO has begun mandating that renewables build their own battery storage units, as the technology keeps growing.
For instance, the island's only wind turbines, the Kaheawa Wind Farm, produce 30 megawatts with a plan to increase production by 21 megawatts soon - and with battery storage of some kind. The proposed Auwahi Wind Farm is another 21-megawatt plant, and construction will begin next year on Ulupalakua Ranch - along with a 15-megawatt lithium phosphate battery storage unit.
In fact, the ranch also recently entered into an agreement with the firm Ormat to explore the possibility of developing a geothermal energy source in the area.
Other companies are also testing the green-energy waters, including HC&S, which wants to develop biofuels, probably out of sugar cane. And Oceanlinx has proposed harnessing a couple mega-watts of wave power in a test project.
Even the county is looking at producing energy out of the natural methane gas at the central landfill or use algae from sewage plants as a biofuel source.
The only thing missing, at the moment, is a large-scale photovoltaic system on Maui, although Castle & Cooke has built one on Lanai.
As for the smart grids, Japanese companies, led by electronics giant Hitachi, have made plans to invest $37 million on Maui for their own smart grid tests. They will focus on Kihei homes and businesses until 2015. Griffin said they both intend to share their results.
Finally, MECO's parent, Hawaiian Electric Co., has ongoing grid improvement tests using "smart meters," which monitor power usage. The company wanted to expand last year, but the state said no because customers would pay for part of it.
In the end, Reinhardt said, smart grids with renewable energy are not only good for the environment, but make the United States more economically stable.
"It also protects all those companies' investments," Griffin said. "Those batteries are really expensive."
* Chris Hamilton can be reached at email@example.com.