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Hawaii picks Maui luxury resort as site to test smart-grid technology

Oct 12, 2009 - Larry Greenemeier - Scientific American (Sciam.com)

Maui tests smart-grid-technologyHawaii has been working for more than a year to map out concrete plans to harness the abundant—though unpredictable—winds that blow across the state's numerous islands. As the state and its utilities draw up plans for wind farms and other green-energy facilities to help meet the goal of pulling 70 percent of power from clean energy by 2030, General Electric Company has announced it will test its smart-grid technology (designed to efficiently manage energy from a variety of sources while cutting down on overall consumption) in the Maui luxury resort community of Wailea, the Associated Press reports.

The test is expected to reduce peak electricity consumption in this 10.4-square-mile patch of land by 15 percent by 2012. Half of the $14 million Maui project is paid for with a federal Department of Energy grant, with the rest of the resources and personnel contributed by General Electric and Hawaiian Electric Company. The pilot is being treated as part of the federal economic recovery package, according to the AP, which included $4.5 billion for smart grid development. Hawaii remains the nation's most fossil-fuel dependent state, with imports supplying about 90 percent of its power needs.

Maui, whose peak load is about 200 megawatts throughout the island, already receives nearly 10 percent of its energy from wind, but minute-to-minute wind fluctuations prevent wind power from being a reliable source of energy for the grid.

GE announced in July it was working with Hawaiian Electric, Maui Electric Company, the University of Hawaii's Natural Energy Institute and the U.S. Energy Department to launch the Maui Smart Grid project. This project's goal is to develop and demonstrate the use of smart grid technologies and help Maui Electric control peak circuit demand, maintain adequate circuit voltage levels, and integrate intermittent renewable energy resources such as wind and solar.

Maui Smart Grid Project developers especially want to address wind's unpredictability—a major barrier to its widespread use as a reliable green technology and one that prompts the state to continue depending on oil-fueled generators—by developing grid communications and controls that help Maui Electric coordinate various resources, such as distributed generation, energy storage, voltage controls and residential loads.

The Hawaiian government signed an energy agreement (pdf) with Hawaiian Electric a year ago to increase renewable energy statewide by 1,100 megawatts by 2030, with wind contributing 400 megawatts to Oahu's grid from wind farms on built on Lanai and/or Molokai by way of an undersea cable developed with the state's help.

Although wind will be the most significant contributor to the grid, other renewable sources will contribute, such as solar photovoltaic farms and geothermal energy. More novel technologies include one venture involving a 20-megawatt ocean thermal plant that uses the temperature difference between the Pacific's warm surface water and its cooler deep water to drive a heat engine, Scientific American reported in June. This prototype would be the first of its kind and cost about $200 million.