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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, January 3, 2010

Explaining HECO's vision for renewable energy

By Robbie Alm

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Executive vice president, Hawaiian Electric Co.

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Rachel Neville: I'd like to ask if HECO is doing anything to minimize seabird kill caused by poorly designed street lights and above-ground power lines. This is important since more windmills will kill more seabirds as they fly between the sea and their nest sites in the mountains.

Robbie Alm: We are as concerned as you are about the seabirds. In fact, we have been working on this very issue for some time.

We have been working with the Department of Land and Natural Resources' Division of Forestry and Wildlife, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a number of local organizations, including the Wildlife Society, Hawai'i Chapter, to increase public awareness about the seabird issue and mitigate impacts to Hawai'i's seabird population. Among other things, HECO, MECO and HELCO have hired a consultant to advise us on developing seabird protection plans to address birds protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and Endangered Species Act. This includes identifying potential conditions regarding company facilities that could impact seabirds and develop plans to protect seabirds and their habitat where appropriate.

Paul: Why is HECO pushing for renewable energy projects? What is the company's financial interest in these efforts? And doesn't a move away from fossil fuels cut into your existing profits?

Alm: Hawaiian Electric is pushing renewable projects because we view our current overdependence on oil as a long-term threat to Hawai'i consumers. Most of the renewable projects are being done by third-party developers and we have no financial interest in them. It is however part of our business to do the work necessary to connect them to the grid and to our customers. We make no profit on fuel or on energy we buy from third parties, including renewable projects.

Linda: How large is this undersea cable and what are the true costs? Is the federal government involved? With the military installations on O'ahu, are there security concerns with such an effort?

Alm: The process of estimating cost for the cable system and associated infrastructure, including a converter station at each end, is in the preliminary stages. Based on the cost of similar projects around the world, an early estimate is $800 million to $1 billion.

The federal government is certainly a customer for renewable energy and there are federal environmental permits involved. Military sites may be involved in the development. The military is already a major customer on O'ahu and we work closely with them on security issues and many others.

(You can learn a lot more about the whole Interisland Wind Project at www.interislandwind.com, where you can post questions or comments that will be answered, or at www.hawaiicleanenergyinitiative.org and click on Undersea Cable.)

RobertInKaimuki: Ratepayers are being asked to pay for these green efforts at a time when we can least afford it. Because there are no other real options in service providers, there is no competition or choice. Are you concerned that you are creating financial hardship for so many of us?

Alm: It is precisely because we are concerned about costs that we are working so hard on renewable energy. In Hawai'i, most forms of renewable energy are likely to be cheaper in the long run than oil. And getting renewable energy more a part of your bill will actually reduce your bill in the long run.

Henry Voris: I have a good friend who went to the time and considerable expense to install a large photovoltaic system in his yard. He produces more electricity than he consumes. The surplus power is fed back into the electric grid. The power company credits my friend's account for the power he produces, so he is able to draw power from the grid at night. The problem arises at the end of the year when the power company comes and sets his meter back to zero wiping out the surplus built up over an entire year. The power company is happy to take the surplus power my friend produces, but refuses to pay one penny for it. I can think of a word for this, but I'd rather hear Mr. Alm tell us why it's OK to take but not pay.

Alm: Henry, good question. The program you are referring to is called Net Energy Metering. Those who participate are paid a retail rate for any electricity sent to the grid. In a sense all other customers subsidize those payments in order to encourage renewable energy. Part of the way that program evens it out is by truing it up once a year. We are now beginning a program called feed-in tariff that will allow people to sell larger amounts of renewable electricity to the grid at a price to be set by the Public Utilities Commission. Your friend at that point may want to look at which program makes the most sense for him.

OneHawaiian: Won't the ratepayers, we in the public, have to pay for the undersea cable between O'ahu and Maui? How much would it increase our rates?

Alm: How the cable will be paid for is still to be determined. We expect it to be by some combination of utility customer and taxpayer funds. The state will be seeking additional federal funding and/or long-term loan guarantees to keep the total cost under control.

Tina: There are protest signs all over Moloka'i and on Lāna'i opposed to the undersea cable project/ wind farms. What is HECO doing to address concerns of residents there?

Alm: Tina, the concerns over the wind farm projects themselves need to be addressed by the developers of those projects. What we have tried to say on both islands is the issues raised by the residents do need to be addressed, that the issues raised by the cable portion of the project need to be fully discussed with the residents of both islands; and that if either or both islands ends up with a wind farm, there should be substantial benefits to the residents of those islands for the service that this renewable energy is providing to the whole state of Hawai'i.