Amazing Feat: Kauai Island Utility Cooperative Achieves 100% Renewable Power Generation

Who knew? Kauai has been running its entire energy grid on 100% renewable sources for short bursts since November. In 2019, KIUC estimates that approximately 55% of its total energy expenditures came from renewable sources, which was well ahead of its stated goals and Hawaii’s mandated benchmarks. Unbeknownst to most of us, for five hours on Tuesday, December 10, electricity on Kauai was generated completely by renewable sources. It was one of eleven days since November 22, where KIUC has successfully supplied all of the grid’s electric needs with 100% renewables for extended periods of several hours each, leveraging both solar and hydropower. “We didn’t use a drop of fossil fuel for a cumulative total of more than 32 hours during that time frame,” said KIUC’s President and Chief Executive Officer, David Bissell. “We believe this is a unique accomplishment for a stand-alone electrical grid relying on small-scale renewable generation.”
According to Bissel, “since 2014 we’ve added 57 megawatts of utility-scale solar and solar-plus-storage facilities,” said Bissell. “The cost of electricity produced by those projects was lower than the cost of diesel and collectively saved our members $3.8 million last year.” He noted that, for the average residential customer, the savings from utility-scale solar alone was roughly $50 over the course of the year. Getting more than halfway to the 100% mark was the cooperative’s goal throughout 2019, says Bissell: “We knew it was possible and we worked hard to get there.” He notes that in 2010 KIUC had only 8% renewable generation. “If all goes as planned, we’ll be approaching 80% within 4 years. We think that’s remarkable by any standard.” Bissell says the rapid increase in renewable generation is the result of a number of factors. “The board of directors set an aggressive goal for renewables back in 2008: reaching 50% by 2023. We were committed to meeting that goal.” He also credits successful partnerships with local landowners and leading renewable companies such as Tesla and AES Distributed Energy. The cooperative’s access to low-cost financing, strategic use of state and federal tax credits and the support of elected leaders at all levels were also critical to KIUC’s success, according to Bissell.
KIUC’s upward movement on renewable penetration and downward trend on rates is expected to continue through 2021. KIUC’s latest solar-plus-storage project with AES will come on line later this year: a 14-megawatt facility on the grounds of the Pacific Missile Range Facility. Priced at less than 11 cents per kilowatt-hour, energy produced at the AES PMRF facility is roughly one-third lower than the current cost of diesel.
The next large chunk of renewable generation will come from the West Kauai Energy Project, which is currently in the design/engineering phase. A hybrid of solar-plus-storage and pumped storage hydro, WKEP will add 20 megawatts of generating capacity and bring KIUC close to 80% renewable. If all goes well, the project will be completed within four years. “At that point, we’ll have nearly two decades to plan for and execute that final 20%,” says Bissell. “Using the strategies that have served us well and keeping an eye on evolving opportunities and technologies, we should have every expectation of success.”
The cooperative’s renewable portfolio is comprised of a combination of distributed and utility- scale solar, one biomass plant, and a number of relatively small hydro generation facilities. KIUC’s grid serves the entire island of Kauai; which has a population of about 100,000 including visitors, without any tie-in to other utilities.
For the past two years, KIUC has routinely achieved 90% or more renewable generation during the mid-day on sunny days. Last month, KIUC took steps to fully deploy renewable capabilities. “We want to provide the cleanest electricity possible, but we have to be mindful that our primary obligation is to provide safe, reliable power to our members at all times,” Bissell explained. “Our operations personnel needed ample time to put all the necessary pieces into place before pushing the envelope to 100% renewable. Now we’re doing it routinely.”
Utility-scale battery storage systems at both the Tesla solar facility in Kapaia and the AES Distributed Energy facility in Lawai contribute significantly to grid stability. These solar fields can simultaneously feed power to the grid and to the batteries for storage and use after sunset.
Hele-on KIUC; congratulations and a big mahalo for taking this leadership position nationwide – a huge feat.

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