Why Is Hawaii Upgrading Its Power Grid?

With an investment of more than $200 million, the state is laying the groundwork for smarter solar power—and a path toward energy independence.

When it comes to clean energy, Hawaii’s ambitions are unmatched: by 2045, the state wants 100 percent of its electricity to come from renewable sources, including solar power.

Already, Hawaii generates more residential solar energy per household than any other state, and nearly 80,000 of its homes have rooftop solar panels, a number that is only expected to grow. On some days, renewables account for almost 60 percent of the state’s power.

Blessed with sunny skies and trade wins, Hawaii is perfectly positioned to produce clean electricity. But a decade ago, the state imported 90 percent of its energy, mostly in the form of oil, which cost about $5 billion annually. That expense, coupled with concerns about climate change and rising oceans, led Hawaii’s legislature to address the issue by adopting renewable energy targets that culminate in the nation’s first all-clean requirement.

In the years since, the state’s movement away from imported fossil fuels and toward energy independence has been unexpectedly swift. For example, Hawaii’s long-term energy plan predicted in 2007 that 11.5 megawatts of rooftop solar capacity would be installed on Oahu by the end of 2015—but thanks in part to tax credits and incentive programs, the island ended up with 300 megawatts of capacity.

Hawaii’s solar boom has created a challenge for the state’s electrical grid, though, which is straining to accommodate an influx of solar and other clean energy sources. In response, Hawaii’s utilities have begun a $205 million grid modernization project that not only incorporates new equipment and technology, but also an entirely different way of managing power use. Built in part with help from Verizon, the upgraded grid promises to better facilitate Hawaii’s energy transition.

“A modern grid is foundational to getting to a 100 percent renewable energy goal,” says Alan Oshima, president and CEO of the Hawaiian Electric Companies. “Without it, it’s not going to happen.”

Hawaii’s solar boom has created a challenge for the state’s electrical grid, which is straining to accommodate an influx of clean energy sources.

Traditional grids are one-way systems: power plants generate electricity that flows to homes and businesses. Durability is essential; flexibility is not. All of which is to say that, until now, utilities have focused almost exclusively on keeping the lights on.

Rooftop solar changes the equation. While customers still receive power, they also generate clean electricity that is fed back into the grid on a fluctuating basis—more when skies are clear, less when it’s cloudy, and subject to an individual home’s energy needs at any given moment.

To ensure safe and reliable power delivery, Hawaii’s utilities need to be able to monitor and manage those electrical flows as they’re happening in order to ramp energy production up and down accordingly. But that’s difficult on the state’s existing grid. “Power used to be generated exclusively by about 15 power plants on five islands,” Oshima says. “But now, on Oahu alone, there are more than 50,000 private rooftop solar installations, and each one is like a mini power plant.

“We need to be able to see those in near real time, so we can figure out what resources need to come on or offline to keep things in balance. Right now, if it’s a cloudy day, or if half the systems in a neighborhood aren’t working, we have no visibility into that.”

And that’s where Verizon comes in. To help modernize the grid, the company is currently working with the Hawaii Electric Companies to outfit rooftop solar installations with smart meters that monitor individual household power use and production, transmitting that data via speedy wireless broadband to a software platform that utilities can access.

“If you look around, I think islands around the world have shown themselves to be the most innovative and creative places in trying to solve energy issue.”

“A good analogy is to the cellular [phone] world,” says Jay Olearain, director of business development for Verizon’s Grid Wide Utility Solutions. “Imagine if we had to rely on our customers to tell us when they are having an issue or need assistance. It would be pretty painful in terms of providing customer support. But for many utilities, that is what they rely on today—people calling in.

“That’s too slow if you have a situation where one side of an island is covered with clouds and under-generating electricity, and the other side is sunny and over-generating. As you get to 100 percent renewables, you need very sophisticated monitoring to balance that power load. That’s what smart meters can help utilities do.”

Armed with that data and other improvements, Hawaii’s utilities will be better positioned to incorporate additional solar users while offering a range of 21st-Century power services, including electric vehicle battery management support and fairer compensation for customers who feed electricity back into the grid.

By 2022, the United States is expected to have four million solar energy installations, quadrupling what it had in 2016. Jeff Mikulina, CEO of the Blue Planet Foundation, a Hawaii-based nonprofit clean energy advocacy group, believes his state can serve as a positive example. “Hawaii can be a real role model for the globe in how to achieve a clean energy future,” he says. “The future is coming faster than anyone anticipated.”

Grid modernization will allow Hawaii to meet that future by achieving its renewable goals—creating a better tomorrow for both the state and the planet. “If you look around, I think islands around the world have shown themselves to be the most innovative and creative places in trying to solve energy issues,” Oshima says. “They are the most endangered by the impact of climate change.”