VERGE Hawaii, the premier clean energy summit for the Asia Pacific region, kicked off Tuesday with a focus on the critical importance of resilience.
This came as little surprise considering ongoing recovery efforts following recent historic rainfall on Kauai and East Oahu, the continuing volcanic eruption in Puna, and the fact that June 1 marked the start of hurricane season.
A panel discussion titled “Rebuilding for Resilience – Lessons from Puerto Rico and Beyond” highlighted how last year’s Hurricane Maria exposed the fragility of Puerto Rico’s infrastructure in the face of a Category 5 storm. An island community like Hawaii, Puerto Rico saw its entire electric grid fail, its highway and road network be disrupted, and access to clean drinking water become severely impeded.
Panelists included three members of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) Transformation Advisory Council: Ulupono Initiative General Partner Kyle Datta; Harley “Rick” Eckert, Financial Planning and Strategy manager for the Kauai Island Utility Cooperative; and Sanjay Bose, head of engineering at New York utility Con Edison. Moderating the discussion was Joel Makower, chairman and executive editor of GreenBiz Group, organizer of VERGE Hawaii.
“We cannot say it can never happen to us,” said Bose, who was directly involved in recoveries following both Hurricane Sandy in New York and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. He said it’s easy to criticize but pointed out those affected communities were built to design standards at the time.
“We need to be cognizant to anomalies,” Bose added, explaining that leaders must be convinced it is wise to invest in protecting against events that may be “low probability but high impact.” The first thing to be done is set a design standard.
Bose recounted how, immediately following Sandy, the consortium leading the recovery adopted as its design code FEMA’s 100-year float maps -- but added two feet plus another foot for future climate change. It was also agreed the design code would be reviewed every five years.
Other solutions such as micro grids – small networks attached to centralized grids but able to function independently – may offer greater resiliency because they can run on a variety of power sources.
Datta agreed that Hawaii’s vulnerability is something of great concern. “What happened in Puerto Rico will happen here. We are not doing the type of joint planning we need.”
Datta cited that the Board of Water Supply only has backup power supply for seven of its 20 major pumps serving the City and County of Honolulu. In the event of a natural disaster, this could result in a full-scale health crisis.
“We have to look at the reality of sea-level rise,” he added. “Should we move to higher ground? It’s a real conversation. Especially in Honolulu where the commercial center is very low (relative to sea level).”
Rick Eckert shared his thoughts on resiliency from the more immediate perspective of Kauai.
Experiencing a major storm is a very significant event to go through for a small community like the Garden Isle, he recalled. After Hurricane Iniki in 1992, almost a third of Kauai’s energy transmission system went down. In response, today 80 percent of the system is steel and has been hardened to withstand higher winds. In addition, the county has more diversity of fuel, employing solar, biomass and hydro, in addition legacy generation via diesel.
Yet another important aspect is vegetation management. A county pole can be hardened to hold up against strong wind, but brittle Albizia trees can knock them down (Albizia trees were a major factor in worsening impact when Hurricane Iselle made landfall in East Hawaii in 2014.)
“There is good news,” Datta concluded. “Technology has advanced.” There are now more commercially viable proposals for large grids that can withstand severe events but also make financial sense from provider and user perspectives.
Events such as VERGE Hawaii represent the start of the conversation, he added. “Everyone is managing their particular kuleana, but we need to have conversation across all areas. Resilience changes the narrative between utility and the consumer; it puts us back in alignment.”
VERGE Hawaii continues through June 14 at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort, Coral Ballroom. If you are attending VERGE Hawaii, stop by and talk story with the Ulupono Initiative team, which is holding “Office Hours” during conference breaks at the Ulupono Initiative Lounge located at Coral II.