Hawaii surges toward clean energy: A special series

Canary Media’s Julian Spector reports on the Aloha State’s rapid shift away from coal and toward renewables. Hawaii is moving faster than the rest of the country, which makes it a fascinating case study. Check out our feature reporting, video and newsletters with behind-the-scenes insights.

Hawaii has a one-year deadline to ditch coal. Can it keep the lights on?

Julian Spector  . 

Rooftop solar on residences in an Oahu neighborhood (Jeremy Bezanger/Unsplash)

HONOLULU, Hawaii — The telephone rang. First electrons were imminent. Twenty-five-year-old Julie Blunden grabbed her binoculars and stepped onto the lanai, a covered porch tucked into the emerald hillside rising above Honolulu.

Looking past the turquoise coastline of Waikiki, across some 20 miles of bay to the west side of Oahu, she saw the evidence: a plume of smoke rising from Barbers Point. 

On that day in September 1991, Blunden’s first reaction was relief: AES, the upstart independent power company she and her new husband had moved to Hawaii to work for, had fulfilled its promise. It had constructed a state-of-the-art coal plant, which would lessen Oahu’s overwhelming dependence on imported oil for electricity and deliver cheaper power for the island. 

AES had packed the plant with equipment to cut air pollution to levels well below the industry norm, while spending $2 million to protect 143,000 acres of rainforest in Mbaracayu, Paraguay as an early form of carbon offset. This made Blunden hopeful.

If we could figure out how to take old technologies, like coal boilers, and make them way, way better, certainly we’d eventually figure out how to start building wind plants and, maybe, someday, what I really wanted to be building: solar plants,” she recalled recently.

Thirty years later, that AES coal plant remains the largest source of power managed by Hawaiian Electric, the investor-owned utility that supplies most of the state. But not for long.

The AES coal plant near Kalealoa, Oahu (Tony Webster/Creative Commons)

Hawaii building huge new battery, bidding farewell to coal

Julian Spector  . 

HONOLULU, Hawaii — When coal plants on the mainland U.S. began to shut down in droves, natural-gas plants were ready to take their place, ramping up as needed to keep the lights on. In Hawaii, that’s not an option — both because of the state’s commitment to having a carbon-free grid by 2045 and because delivering natural gas to the islands is prohibitively expensive.

When Hawaii’s last remaining coal plant ceases operations on the island of Oahu in September 2022, the state will turn instead to a giant battery to ensure the grid keeps functioning smoothly. The Kapolei Energy Storage facility (KES) will rank among the largest stand-alone batteries in the world, at 185 megawatts/​565 megawatt-hours. It is contracted with utility Hawaiian Electric to keep the grid running for the next 20 years, a crucial interval leading up to the 2045 deadline.

Here, today, on Oahu, Plus Power and Hawaiian Electric are sending a postcard from the future,” said Plus Power’s lead developer Bob Rudd at a ground blessing ceremony last week. I’m certain that someday we’ll all look back, when there are dozens of projects just like KES on the mainland and all across the world, and we’ll think, We were there. Hawaii showed the world how to do it first.’ ”

Soon, 158 Tesla Megapacks will arrive on the 7-acre patch of dusty, previously disturbed land in the James Campbell Industrial Park, a cluster of heavy industry on the west side of Oahu.

Large batteries are becoming an increasingly common source of power for evening hours in the desert Southwest on the mainland. But KES will shoulder duties that batteries have never had to perform at this scale in order to keep the grid running reliably for Oahu’s 1 million residents and the U.S. military’s Indo-Pacific Command facility.

KES still needs to get built, and then to operate as advertised. But as other states and the U.S. Congress contemplate 100 percent clean energy goals, KES will become an early test case for whether high-tech clean alternatives can take over from fossil fuel plants and keep the grid running.

Ultimate pacemaker for the grid”

Large batteries of recent vintage typically serve a bulk capacity role: Their primary job is to deliver a bunch of electrons in the hours when the grid needs it. KES will do that, but it will also carry out several rarely performed but highly valuable tasks.

First, the battery will be able to jump-start the grid if some calamity knocks it out — grid wonks call this black-start capability.” Islandwide blackouts hit Oahu in 2006 and 2008 after an earthquake and a lightning storm, respectively. Tsunamis and cyclones threaten to wreak similar havoc in the future.

Second, Plus Power specifically designed the battery to prevent the grid from shutting down in the first place. KES will reserve 50 megawatts of capacity to push out in a fraction of a second if grid frequency falls out of safe range, an event that can precede a cascading grid failure. Texas infamously came within 4 minutes and 37 seconds of a frequency-related collapse in its February winter storm, which could have knocked out power to many in the state for weeks.

If the problem continues, the full battery will respond with what is called grid-forming services.” The state’s last remaining coal plant, owned by AES and located just down the road from the KES site, maintains grid frequency with the physical inertia of its spinning metal turbine. KES will replicate that effect with digital controls and a field of Tesla batteries, becoming what Plus Power’s policy leader Polly Shaw called the ultimate pacemaker for the grid.”

On a daily basis, KES will act as a communal battery for the island as a whole, using the bulk of its capacity to absorb excess midday solar power and feed it back to the grid to serve evening demand. That creates space for more rooftop solar and larger solar fields as Oahu pushes toward 100 percent renewable power. 

Claiming a first is always risky in the fast-moving storage industry. Plus Power’s leaders acknowledge that KES’ functionality is not entirely unique; some small-scale batteries in remote or off-grid settings perform similar roles. But KES will have considerably greater impact, as it adds up to roughly 17 percent of the 1,100-megawatt peak demand on Oahu.

As far as I understand, this would be the first project that provides a combination of load-shifting, fast frequency response, virtual inertia and black-start [capabilities] at 100-plus-megawatt scale,” said Rudd, who previously led large-scale storage sales for Tesla.

Plus Power employees and Hawaii energy leaders ceremonially turn the dirt at the site of the future Kapolei battery plant. (Photo credit: Julian Spector)

Video: Hawaii turns to clean energy as coal power goes extinct in the state

Julian Spector  . 

When Hawaii shuts down its only coal plant next year, it’ll need a new source of power for critical moments of peak demand. Canary Media visited Oahu to report on the big new battery that will play that role. See for yourself in the video above, plus read about plans to launch the battery plant and Hawaii’s nation-leading shift to clean energy.

We thank videographer Lucas Assenmacher for his work on this project. Getty photographs featured in the video are by Ron Jenkins and Mark Felix.

Newsletter: Hawaii vs. fossil fuels

Julian Spector  . 

At Canary Media, we aim to take our readers to the places where breakthroughs in clean energy are happening right now.

I’ve reported on a solar-powered ship crossing the globe and a battery that beat a natural gas plant in the city of Oxnard, Calif. — those stories involved short drives from my home in Los Angeles. But there’s plenty of innovation happening beyond the blue skies and golden sunshine in my backyard. 

Last week I visited Oahu, Hawaii’s most populous island, which is currently girding itself for the closure of the state’s last coal plant. My mission: to figure out how the island’s grid is shifting from fossil power to clean power, without the help of any neighboring grids to ease the transition.

I’ve got a ton to catch you up on, so stay tuned over the next few days. For now, I wanted to give you a quick overview of why Hawaii has become known as a postcard from the future” of clean energy, and how that moniker has only grown more meaningful in recent months.

Clean energy moves faster on island time

Hawaii was the first state to pass a law to decarbonize its electricity system. The 2015 law set a 100 percent renewable target for 2045. Subsequent legislation specified that coal must shut down before 2023.

Policy certainly pushes things along. But Hawaii’s geography also accelerated clean energy adoption relative to the slower pace on the mainland.

  • The islands don’t have coal or natural gas deposits. The grid relies on burning imported oil and diesel, which is expensive.
  • That meant solar became cost-effective there early on, both on rooftops and in larger plants. 
  • The early proliferation of solar installations forced the adoption of batteries to manage the influx and shift it to more valuable evening hours.
  • Scarce land makes large-scale development tricky, however. Hawaii very much pursues parallel tracks of building large-scale renewables and tapping its prodigious small-scale installations to help the grid.
  • As of 2020, Kauai was hitting around 60 percent renewable electricity. Oahu, Hawaii Island and Maui averaged 34.5 percent renewable. Compare that to about 20 percent for the U.S. as a whole.

In a moment that felt like it had to be scripted, my cab driver from the airport in Honolulu heard what I was up to and revealed that he had put some 40 solar panels on his roof. He said that dropped his household’s electric bill from $600 a month to almost nothing. (I did not have time to verify his electric bills, so take this as broadly illustrative of the market dynamics.)

Lest you think I’m the type of reporter who just jots down whatever the taxi driver says and calls it a day, here are some hard statistics:

  • 36 percent of single-family homes on Oahu have solar, as do 29 percent in Maui County, according to utility Hawaiian Electric.
  • 78 percent of new home solar installations in 2020 included batteries. Sunrun, the nation’s largest solar installer, says basically all of its new customers in Hawaii get batteries.

Those numbers are way ahead of the mainland. 

Over the last several years, Hawaii adopted policies to discourage more solar production exporting to the grid at midday, because it already had so much. But that’s now starting to change as the coal closure looms.

Paradigm shift

The last remaining coal plant in the state, owned by independent power producer AES, will shut down in 2022 after running since the early 90s. 

It’s an unusual plant in that it still provides some of the cheapest on-demand power in Hawaii. On the mainland, the story is usually that coal plants are already losing money compared to newer, cleaner options. But cheap or not, Hawaii’s last coal plant emits local pollution and carbon emissions.

We strongly supported shutting down the coal plant,” said Kylie Wager Cruz, senior attorney with Earthjustice in Hawaii. That facility needed to go. What we do with that loss of capacity is the key question.”

Making that question all the more interesting is the fact that Oahu can’t do what mainland grids do: simply shift to flexible gas power when coal goes away. For policy and economic reasons, gas is not an option for Hawaii. It can only build new renewables and energy storage to fill the gap — or temporarily burn more oil and diesel while those plants are still kicking.

Hawaiian Electric chose a portfolio of solar and storage projects to collectively replace the AES plant, as well as one really big battery. San Francisco developer Plus Power is building the 185-megawatt/565-megawatt-hour Kapolei Energy Storage (KES) system just down the road from the coal plant. 

  • It will be among the largest stand-alone batteries in the world. Being able to charge from the grid, rather than onsite solar, gives it additional flexibility.
  • Beyond its size, KES going to do a bunch of things that no batteries have done at anywhere close to this scale.

This project is sufficiently groundbreaking to deserve a closer look, which I’ll deliver to your inbox tomorrow. But I wanted to tease one aspect of it: KES will act like a battery at large for the whole Oahu grid, which means the system will be able to handle way more solar power than it otherwise could. 

Hawaii’s energy planners are already freeing up residential and community-scale solar projects to inject more power into the grid. After years when that was discouraged, it’s now looking like a vital tool for keeping the lights on without coal power. 

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the perceived tensions between large-scale and small-scale clean energy. Hawaii offers a clear example of how the interplay between the two can achieve things that neither could accomplish on its own.

Read part 2 in the Hawaii newsletter series: The battery knocking coal out of Hawaii

(Lead photo: Braden Jarvis)

Newsletter: The battery knocking coal out of Hawaii

Julian Spector  . 

For Hawaii to finally knock coal power off its grid, it’s going to need a bigger battery.

And now that’s happening. Developer Plus Power held a ground blessing last week for Kapolei Energy Storage (KES), which will be the biggest battery in Hawaii. It will take over duties from the AES coal plant that we haven’t seen large-scale batteries do before. (See my full story here.)

Put simply, KES is a test case for how to switch from fossil fuels to clean energy without relying on gas power in a pinch.

Big fossil-fueled plants don’t just pump out electricity. They also maintain the frequency of the grid with the sheer inertia of their spinning turbines. 

  • If the grid drops out of the safe band of frequency, bad things happen.
  • Texas came disturbingly close to a systemwide collapse due to that very reason during its February 2021 winter storm.

Plus Power designed a battery that can respond to a dangerous shift in grid frequency faster than you can blink. It also has the ability to jump-start the grid network if it does go down due to a massive storm, tsunami, earthquake or what have you.

Technically, a battery in your house plays a similar role if the grid goes down: It forms its own islanded grid, maintains proper frequency and manages the flow of rooftop solar generation. But I’ve never heard of a battery performing these tasks in such a high-stakes situation:

  • Oahu is home to 1 million people and critical facilities like the U.S. military’s Indo-Pacific Command.
  • KES’ capacity equates to about 17 percent of the island’s peak demand, immediately making it a central component of ensuring the smooth operations of the grid.
  • By serving as a communal battery for the whole island, KES unlocks a bunch more solar development elsewhere, including on rooftops and community-scale projects.

Here’s how Plus Power’s lead developer Bob Rudd (formerly director of utility sales at Tesla) described the precedent at a ground-blessing ceremony last week:

Here, today, on Oahu, Plus Power and Hawaiian Electric are sending a postcard from the future. I’m certain that someday we’ll all look back, when there are dozens of projects just like KES on the mainland and all across the world, and we’ll think, We were there. Hawaii showed the world how to do it first.”
Kahu Kordell Kekoa presided over a traditional Hawaiian ground blessing last week, recognizing the past and future uses of the land.

Newsletter: How people can play a role in Hawaii’s shift to clean energy

Julian Spector  . 

Welcome to the third and final installment of our newsletter series on the Aloha State. So far we’ve covered Hawaii’s bellwether push for clean energy and how a massive new battery is paving the way for a complete end to coal power. Now I’m going to tell you how residents on Oahu are getting asked to play a bigger role in the grid transition.

Hawaii’s rooftop solar industry boomed early and was so successful that the island grids ended up with more power than they needed in the sunniest hours.

The major utility, Hawaiian Electric, then pushed for policies that disincentivized sending excess rooftop solar production to the grid. Customers had to minimize exports by consuming what they produced or getting a battery to store it. 

That’s changing now that the last coal plant on Oahu is shutting down.

  • There’s a real possibility of an electricity shortfall between the shutdown and the beginning of operations of a fleet of large solar and battery projects now being installed. 
  • In response, the utility regulator has rapidly opened up new pathways to build more local energy.
  • The message now is that households can be part of the solution by producing more clean energy and sharing it with the grid.

Here’s how James Griffin, the chair of the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission, described it to me last week:

We’ve got to think of a paradigm shift here, that exported energy — we need it; we’re not trying to discourage it.”

And here’s what I heard from Colton Ching, senior vice president for planning and technology at Hawaiian Electric:

We cannot get there with just grid-scale resources; we can’t get there with just distributed resources. We need to do both.”
Rooftop solar swept Hawaii. Now customers are being encouraged to share their clean power with the grid. (Photo credit: Julian Spector)

Newsletter: A play-by-play from the frontlines of Hawaii’s race to replace coal

Julian Spector  . 

(Luke McKeown/Unsplash)

Welcome to Canary Media’s free newsletter, which explores trends in the clean energy transition and highlights the best of our news coverage. Sign up today.

Hello Canaries!

A quick programming note for you: In the weeks to come, I’m going to shift more of my time to reporting and writing stories. I’ll focus my newsletter energies on the Monday edition, weaving together threads of knowledge from the previous week’s news and prepping you for the week ahead. 

On other days, the newsletter will feature the freshest writing from myself, my colleagues and our soon-to-arrive new reporters. And you’ll enjoy special columns like Mike Munsell’s consistently fascinating Friday Social, which has already taught me a ton about how people grapple with the climate crisis in the far-flung corners of the internet.

I’m having a blast writing this missive to you and sharing what I’m seeing at the cutting edge of real action to build a society powered by clean energy. And it’s been heartening to see all the feedback from you when you enjoy an edition, chuckle at a pun, or argue a point you think I got wrong.

Please keep that conversation going. And if you enjoyed my writing here, I hope that you’ll also check out my reporting, starting with something very special this very day…

A special report on Hawaii’s energy transition crunchtime

This summer I went to Oahu for work, and that raised some eyebrows. Is he really working? How much time did he spend on the beach? 

This creates an obligation to produce some work, and now I’ve got an epic feature and a short-form documentary based on all the interviews and exploration I did on that trip.

Here’s the setup: 

  • Hawaii was the first state to commit to 100 percent renewable electricity. 
  • It faces its first major hurdle in that journey when the state’s lone coal plant shuts down in September 2022
  • Now we’re in the crunchtime when Oahu must build enough clean power to ensure a smooth exit from coal.

The original purpose of my trip was to report on the massive stand-alone battery that will replace the coal plant’s capacity on a one-to-one basis.

What I learned on the ground is that construction of the large solar plants expected to fill up the big battery has fallen behind schedule. That created risk that the island grid will have to burn more oil to replace coal power, which would be both dirty and costly.

Rather than cruise into that mess, Hawaii’s regulators jumped in and rapidly approved a bunch of programs that clean and distributed energy advocates had long hoped for. 

While the big projects work their way through permitting and construction delays, Oahu is asking for more residential and community-scale solar to rush onto the grid. Individual homes are being asked to help, and they’ll get paid for their services.

Hawaii is unlike anywhere else on earth (I verified this when I went there for my work trip). But this story is vitally important for any other place contemplating a wholesale shift to clean power (which is pretty much anywhere, at this point). 

  • Hawaii is learning, in real time, what it takes to actually deliver on lofty decarbonization promises. There’s a lot of moving pieces, and not everything goes as planned. Success depends on timely and thoughtful intervention when things veer off track.
  • Hawaii is turning to small, localized clean energy out of necessity when the big power plants fall behind schedule. Anyone arguing for distributed versus centralized energy has a crucial case study to look at here.
  • The challenges in locating large renewables plants on Oahu are a warning for elsewhere. Renewables development doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It must contend with the historical forces that shape a place, while finding ways to help the community thrive in the future.

There are all sorts of other fascinating tidbits to discover and characters to meet, so please give the full article a read. If you like your news short and sweet, watch the video. 

And if you have any suggestions for sunny, gorgeous places where one may investigate the cutting edge of clean energy adoption, by all means, let us know at [email protected]​canarymedia.​com.