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Changing the story on utilities and utility executives on SEPA’s Hawaii mission

By K Kaufmann

Utilities and the people who run them tend to be seen as conservative and averse to risk and change — in particular, the risks and changes they now face as solar and other renewable energy technologies grow increasingly affordable and popular.

So, what to say about the group of utility executives who have come to Honolulu from across the United States and beyond for the Solar Electric Power Association’s (SEPA’s) four-day fact-finding mission on the energy transition now underway in Hawaii.

Utilities here are navigating a challenging and fast-changing landscape as the state’s dependence on imported fossil fuels and the resulting high electricity rates — more than 30 cents per kilowatt hour — give way to ever-increasing amounts of photovoltaic (PV) solar and other renewable energy technologies.

Under a recently passed law, the state has set itself the most ambitious renewable energy target in the nation — to run 100 percent on carbon-free power by 2045. Meanwhile, with solar panels sprouting on rooftops across the state, Hawaiian Electric Company (HECO), the state’s main utility, is now dealing with  a grid that has some locations where solar power can spike to 250 percent of the minimum daily baseload demand.

While we are not naming names at this point the group traveling with SEPA was selected from among utilities and solar industry leaders who are or soon may be facing similar regulatory and technological challenges. Utility leaders from California and Arizona — now in the midst of their own headline-grabbing solar policy debates — have a significant presence here, as do executives from regulated, investor-owned utilities.

At the same time, the group is geographically diverse, including utility and solar industry representatives from emerging solar markets on the East Coast of the United States and Canada, as well as islands in the Caribbean.  Similarly, executives from public power companies and electric cooperatives are also included.

Far from being averse to change, these women and men are intensely interested and actively involved in the transitions underway at their own and other utilities. But they also recognize that the road forward must take into account the constraints and challenges of the 100-year old business models and centralized, fossil fuel-based technologies that continue to provide the safe, reliable and affordable power their customers expect.

The schedule for the next four days is packed and intentionally planned to ensure plenty of time for the SEPA group to hear from and question a cross-section of Hawaiian energy stakeholders, including state policy makers, utility executives, solar advocates and clean tech entrepreneurs.

Equally important, the trip is aimed at establishing ongoing lines of communication between all participants, to create a platform for cross-industry idea-sharing and collaboration going forward.

SEPA Communications Manager K Kaufmann will be documenting the trip with daily postings on the Utility Solar blog, and sharing insights and ideas with live tweets from individual sessions.

Aloha, and follow along. It’s going to be an exciting trip.