Volcanic eruptions shift utility focus to microgrid solutions


Volcanic eruptions on Hawaii’s Big Island have damaged Hawaii Electric Light (HELCO) poles and equipment shifting the utility’s focus to microgrid development.

“We know that we have hundreds of poles and associated equipment that has been damaged or destroyed by lava activity,” said Rhea Lee-Moku, manager, administration for HELCO.

“We have also lost a switching station that was covered by lava. We are unable to complete a full assessment of damage until the eruption stops and the areas are safe for entry.”

Once lava flow ceases, HELCO plans to use a diesel generator to create a small microgrid that would serve Vacationland Hawai‘i and Kapoho Beach Lots areas.

According to Lee-Moku, in order to create the microgrid, HELCO must secure land rights, prepare the site, as well as obtain and fuel a generator.

“We’ve evaluated solar plus storage and this option is a potential longer-term solution for these communities,” she said.

Kilauea began erupting on May 3 and is continuing to wreak havoc on the island by isolating communities from the grid.

“There is only one power line serving some of these remote communities and if this radial feed is lost, we lose the ability to provide power to those communities,” she said.

According to Lee, the Puna Geotherma Venture (PGV) plant that provides about 25% of HELCO’s power shut down when the eruptions began, and hasn’t produced power since then.

“Since PGV stopped generating power, we have relied on other generating units to provide the island’s electricity. Hawaii Island has a diverse portfolio of generation including fossil fueled generation, solar, wind, and hydropower,” she said.

The state is looking to legislate microgrid installation to ease the process and make it more cost effective for home owners. The bill aims to increase grid resiliency, safety and security and ease renewable connectivity.