Ooops — A Power Failure just after sunset

While I don’t really believe in signs, I must admit, the last week I spent in Honolulu provided the encouragement I needed to give Kailua-Kona a try.   Honolulu was encouraging me to find someplace else to be.  It had been a great 4 week stay full of Saimin, Portuguese Sausage, papaya and walks on Kailua Beach.

It all started when the good folks at the Honolulu Board of Water Supply decided to replace a water main in front of my Hawaii residence location.  This 8 to 10 month long process was spectacularly noisy.  Hours were spent listening to a saw cut strips in asphalt.

A few days later, on Monday January, 12th,  I went for a drive to a favorite beach of mine near Kaena Point.  I got caught in an 90 minute traffic mess because the city closed one lane of the Farrington Highway.  90 minutes to go a bit over a mile.

Later that evening, shortly after sunset, on a windless night, the power system got stressed by the anticipated evening peak. The utility issued a series of rolling blackouts to prevent total system failure. People watching the National Championship Football game were not pleased.

Hawaiian Electric (HE) has not constructed a new peaking power plant since 1991.  The most recent plant of significant size (a 130 megawatt plant) was built by a private firm in 1992.  That’s a long time without significant power additions.  Plants get old, technology changes, new loads get added.   The traffic mess that is Kapolei did not exist in 1992.   No wonder the grid is stressed.

Hawaii needs 4 old plants to operate properly for the city to stay lit at night.  Three oil fired plants owned by the utility and one owned by a private firm, AES.

AES constructed it’s plant in 1992, some 22+ years ago…and it’s…are you ready for this… coal fired with coal imported from Indonesia!  This 130 megawatt plant  burns an odd assortment of waste in addition to the coal.  Old tires and waste motor oil provide fuel for the plant. The plant uses an old technology to clean the coal exhaust. On the plus side, it does get rid of lots of hard to handle waste, on an island that has little surplus land.

In 2010, the utility began the process of converting existing oil plants to algae based biodiesel.   And in 2014, they included biomass as a future feedstock in the coal plant contract.   I worry that converting existing peaking plants might put the grid at risk, should the new technology not work as well as advertised.

It’s never a good idea to be first to market using a new technology.  It’s generally a good idea to go second or even third.  Our optimistic nature produces rosy scenarios that are nearly impossible to meet in the real world.  We fail to anticipate problems. Many expensive mistakes are made as we learn.  Remember the Boeing 787 airplane, chock full of new technology.  It turned out OK because Boeing had the resources and time to make it work. The project was years late and billions over budget.

I remember something called the Healy Clean Coal Plant that was constructed in Healy, Alaska.

This new technology plant was supposed to burn waste coal cleanly.   The 300 million dollar plant was  completed in 1998.  It sits idle today…the victim of frequent plant failures, poor quality control during the test phase and a plethora of legal difficulties.

Hawaii politicians seem to be OK with the notion that evening power failures are part of the price Hawaii must pay for Hawaii’s clean energy policies.  I don’t get it.   It’s going to get worse.

Hawaiian Electric is not spending money to meet the peak demand and is spending money to stabilize the grid so that it can take more solar energy during the day.  Too much solar in remote locations has destabilized the grid, causing voltage surges.  This has forced the utility to limit new installations.

Generous subsidies have created a thriving solar business.  When the utility limits these installations, the utility has a significant PR problem.   Hawaiian Electric’s (HE) approach is to figure out ways to take more power during the day….and announce in advance when power failures are going to show up in the evening.

Spending money to expand the dirty old oil system is unpopular. Three main power plants provide the majority of Honolulu’s oil fired power.  The largest is the Kahe Oil Plant on Oahu’s west shore.  Between 1963 and 1981 this plant was expanded 5 times from 81 Megawatts of Power to the 661 Megawatts it has today.  Facilities at this plant are over 30 years old, with many facilities over 40 years of age.

The most recent major expansion of the Hawaiian Electric Oil system was completed when the Kalaeola Cogen plant was finished in 1991.  This “newer” Cogen plant  added almost 300 megawatts of power between 1989 and 1991.  The newest power generator in the system is 23 years old.

The third major oil fired plant, the Waiau Oil Plant provides a bit over 200 Megawatts.    I can remember driving by this plant in 1960.  Some equipment dates back to 1950, most of the generation was constructed in the 196o’s.

As HE approached the rolling blackout days, several HE oil plants were having difficulties and the coal plant was struggling too.  Peak capacity was severely limited as the utility struggled to get the failed units back on line.  No new peaking plants in over 20 years in a system that must exist without assistance from other operators.  Sometimes being on an island is a bitch.

HE has been pretending, literally for years, that their peaking problem does not exist.  It is only going to get worse as local politics trumps basic utility operations.   Algae based biodiesel might work, but it will probably be years late and billions over budget.

Goodbye Honolulu, hello Kona and all that geothermal power.

 

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