What we want to do is enable our customers to quickly be able to know what kind of solutions are out there for them.
COVID-19 took the world by surprise. While grocery stores saw runs on toilet paper and disinfectant wipes, Hawaii’s island of Kauai was experiencing a crisis of its own: a shortage of tourists and rental cars.
During the pandemic, the combination of people leaving the island and the steep decline in vacationers shocked the island’s economy. Not only did this lead to a struggling automobile manufacturing sector, but rental car companies were also forced to sell or ship their fleets elsewhere to save money, leaving the state with a large rental car shortage.
This challenging situation turned into an opportunity for the Hawaiian island of Kauai to jumpstart its transition to cleaner transportation and away from fossil fuels with support from the Department of Energy's new Energy Transitions Initiative Partnership Project (ETIPP).
ETIPP connects 11 remote communities throughout the country with regionally-based organizations and technical experts at the Department’s National Labs to address community-specific energy needs. In Hawaii, the program is bringing these resources—as well as the regional partner the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute under the University of Hawaii—to work with Kauai and the Honolulu-based utility company, Hawaiian Electric, on identifying and implementing strategies for boosting resiliency and sustainability.
For Kauai, this means focusing on reducing the dependency and vulnerabilities associated with single-occupancy vehicles, according to the county's former sustainability and energy coordinator, Ben Sullivan. Although the area’s grid, operated by Kauai Island Utility Cooperative, currently utilizes 60% renewable energy and is expected to reach 80% in the next several years, the solutions needed to make cleaner changes to the transportation infrastructure haven’t been implemented to the scale they need to be to make it work.
"If you just kind of oversimplify the choices in the ground transportation world and you say, 'okay, we can electrify'—which is kind of a fuel-switching approach—'or we can transform,'—which is really more of an integrated mobility approach—we're really trying to do the latter,” he said.
As Kauai moves toward cleaner transportation, Hawaiian Electric - which operates on the islands of Oahu, Maui, Hawaii, Lanai and Molokai - is shifting its attention to developing a hybrid microgrid map. This solution will help the company’s customers—which compromise 95% of Hawaii's residents on these islands—identify locations where microgrids can be designed and created using utility wires, said its senior advisor of planning and technology, Ken Aramaki.
It's the right moment to be saying, 'hey, what are some of these alternatives and how do we collaborate on them?'
The move comes at a time when the organization is transitioning away from oil and coal and pushing to electrify its communities with 100% clean energy by 2045. Over the past decade, the percentage of renewables powering Hawaiian Electric’s grid has jumped from 9% to roughly 35% and today 20% of its customers use rooftop solar to power their homes, Aramaki said. In addition, the company is also set to start several new projects in wind, solar, and energy storage. The development of the hybrid microgrid map is another way to build on this momentum and increase energy resilience.
To turn these goals into reality, both Hawaiian Electric and Kauai County will work with the Department’s National Labs. By the end of the project, Aramaki said the utility company hopes to produce a hybrid microgrid map for all five of the islands.
"What we want to do is enable our customers to quickly be able to know what kind of solutions are out there for them,” he said.
While electrifying Kauai’s existing vehicle fleet is an important part of the plan to reduce emissions from transportation, Sullivan emphasized the need to keep vehicle miles traveled—or VMT—down while also enabling growth. To do it, Sullivan emphasized the importance of giving people choices by making public buses more attractive, creating carshare opportunities and shuttle buses, offering bicycles and finding ways to help visitors and residents walk to their destinations.
"It's the right moment to be saying, 'hey, what are some of these alternatives and how do we collaborate on them?'" he continued.
Both of these efforts mark the beginning of bigger, bolder changes for the future. Disaster responses could look different in a few years, said Sullivan, who mentioned, historically, these efforts have been focused on bringing fuel to the island during hurricanes and storms. Although this region will still have to manage the impacts on the infrastructure during these occurrences, cleaner transportation could open the door for these dependencies to shift away from fossil fuel.
It will also provide safety and security for Hawaiian residents. In the next five to 10 years, Aramaki discussed how he hopes the company will be able to bring more of these microgrids onboard to enable customers like hospitals, critical data centers and community centers to have more control over their electricity during severe weather events.
"(It's) just another layer of resilience for our customers and our community, overall,” he added.
To learn more about the ETIPP program, visit the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy’s website.