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October 09, 2018

Turning The Lights Back On Is Tough In Oahu’s Rugged Terrain Turning The Lights Back On Is Tough In Oahu’s Rugged Terrain

Categories: Energy

Published in Civil Beat on October 9, 2018

Ohau’s sprawling electrical grid — the 3,000 miles of lines that deliver power to local homes, stores, fuel and water pumps — is in better shape than Puerto Rico’s was when Hurricane Maria pummeled that Caribbean island.

Still, the two islands’ grids share a similar, fragile design, in which most power is generated on one end of the island, then sent across rugged terrain to heavily populated cities and towns on the other side.

That disjointed layout helped leave parts of the Caribbean island without power for nearly a year after Maria struck.

“We’re just like Puerto Rico,” said Kyle Datta, a general partner at the Honolulu-based social investment fund Ulupono Initiative. “We’re not designed yet for turning the lights back on gracefully.”

If Oahu suffered a direct hit from a hurricane, it’s hard to say how long the island’s communities would be left in the dark. However, it won’t be comparable to the extended outages that plagued Puerto Rico, HECO officials say.

HECO would draw on its mutual-assistance agreements with mainland utilities, which would send their own crews and equipment to help restore power to Oahu. 

Of course, that plan depends on Honolulu Harbor being open to get the equipment on-island. The roadways need to be accessible to move workers around Oahu. The water system must be working to operate the power plants. And the water system needs electricity for its well pumps to operate.

“All of those pieces work in sync with each other,” says Scott Seu, HECO’s vice president for public affairs. “You can plan for certain scenarios. Guaranteed you probably haven’t thought of all the different twists that will be thrown at you.”

Seu points to a more specific weakness in Oahu’s grid beyond its overall design — one that worries him even more. There’s no electricity generated on the Windward side.

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