We had the opportunity last week to meet with officials from Maui Electric Co. and talk about a variety of subjects and challenges the utility is facing.
Most interesting was the challenge the company has in shifting to sustainable energy to power its grid. The general public - including us - looks around and sees a lot of sunshine and wind and wonders why MECO can't just turn off its diesel generators and use what nature provides to give us electricity.
Well, the answer is simple - the wind doesn't always blow and the sun doesn't always shine. And, unfortunately, battery storage of electricity generated when those two phenomena are occurring is not yet long-term enough to ride out the still and cloudy periods.
In utility terms, neither wind nor sun is a "firm" source of electricity for MECO.
MECO is very interested in the testing that will occur later this year to see how much geothermal energy may be stored beneath the surface of our island. In MECO President Ed Reinhardt's view, geothermal would be a "firm" source and the company would be interested in investing in it.
In the meantime, though, the expansion of the Kaheawa wind farm above Maalaea should be completed in June, bringing it up to generating 21 megawatts of power. The Auwahi wind farm planned for Ulupalakua will bring another 21 megawatts to the grid when it is completed in December.
But, until firm sustainable electricity is possible, MECO's diesel generators will have to at least be idling, ready to step in when the wind stops blowing and the sun stops shining. Perhaps the development of bigger, longer-lasting battery backups will speed us along to a petroleum-free utility. Perhaps geothermal will be the answer.
Or, most likely, a combination of the two will finally set us free of energy surcharges.
* Editorials reflect the opinion of the publisher.