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Cloudy Skies
What Hawaii Can Teach Us About Solar Power

Hawaii’s geography makes it well-suited for renewable energy—it’s forced to import and burn oil to generate electricity at great cost, and its sunny climate makes solar power an obvious choice. But for a state intent on going 100 percent green in just thirty short years, worrying signs of strain on power grids are already starting to appear. The WSJ reports:

…Hawaii’s grid is already running into problems with its heavy helping of rooftop solar and other carbon-free renewables. Among them: sudden swings in the output of solar and wind, which force the state’s main utility to scramble to try to keep the overall supply of power steady. […]

Though Hawaii’s effort is attracting attention around the globe, its electric system is unusual. For starters, each island has its own electric grid, and they aren’t connected. On the mainland, three big power grids serve 48 states; typically, the bigger the grid, the more stable it is. […]

More than 50,000 houses in the state act as tiny power plants, putting any electricity that they don’t use onto the grid. But grids were designed to zip electrons across high-voltage wires from a few big power plants to homes and businesses; they were not made to work the other way around. Traditional power plants weren’t designed to ramp up and down quickly, either—making it tough to absorb bursts of solar power added to the grid on sunny days or make up for a sudden drop on cloudy ones.

Grid stability is often overlooked or glossed over by renewable energy activists, but it remains a high hurdle communities will have to clear to significantly boost the share wind and solar have in the overall energy mix. Most grids as currently arrayed just aren’t equipped to send power in two directions, and as a result are destabilized when smaller, more distributed, and much more numerous solar and wind energy providers start providing power.

To make matters work, these renewables producers can’t contribute when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing, meaning they need to draw from the grid during certain times of the day. Lacking any cost-effective commercial-scale energy storage options, that means Hawaii will continue to have to rely on fossil fuels for those cloudy, windless days.

The Aloha State is fashioning itself as an American leader in solar energy, but is finding out that blazing that trail is a much tougher task than most greens like to think it is.

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  • fastrackn1

    If they are willing to be a Guinea Pig for this, then let them have at it. Given their situation, they seem the best to take on the challenge.
    They may end up working it all out in the end, so we might then be able to apply what they have learned to the grid in the 48 and elsewhere in the world.
    We will all need to do something eventually anyway…get off of, or become much less dependent on, fossil fuels….

  • Andrew Allison

    The fact that the electricity distribution grid is designed to distribute, not collect, electricity is not news, and applies just as much to the mainland as to Hawaii. It might, however, be worth exploring just how and why Hawaii came to be on the bleeding edge of the problem. The question which might perhaps be asked is whether the subsidies which persuaded people to install all that (expensive, imported) solar capacity would have been better spent on reverse-engineering, as it were, the grid. On the other hand, it might cost less to simply provide the owners of residential solar systems with one of Mr Musk’s home storage batteries. As an aside, as a regular visitor to the west side of Maui, I’ve consistently been struck, despite the strong and predictable wind, how few of the wind turbines there are actually spinning (might be interesting to see a study of potential versus actual production for turbines). Maybe what Hawaii really needs is geothermal energy generation — the State does, after all, have access to some rather spectacular heat sources.

  • Kevin

    I would have that HI would be better suited to geothermal (all those volcanoes) – which should provided steady power output.

  • Boritz

    Are there adequate forms and schedules built into the 1040 to capture the tax effects of installation of panels and participation in providing power to the grid? Do they have questions like “What was the root mean square current of your surplus output? Enter here and on line 23 of schedule Z. Subtract exempt kilowatt hours based on average number of sunny days for your zone (not less than zero).

    • Dan

      +1 headache

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