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NREL Assigns Renewables Experts to Hawaii, Alaska

Mar 30, 2009 - National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL)

NREL has dispatched clean energy experts to Hawaii and Alaska to work as advisors to local policymakers and utilities.

At a glance, the two states couldn't appear to be more different — tropical and small versus Arctic and huge.

However, Hawaii and Alaska both have considerable renewable energy resources, including solar, wind, geothermal, biomass and wave energy.

And because of their remote locations, they have the nation's highest energy costs and rely almost exclusively on fossil fuels.

Department of Energy and NREL officials recognize that both states could serve as renewable energy models for the Lower 48. But integrating renewables into the states' economies and infrastructures is a complex job that won't get done simply by offering advice from the lab's Golden, Colo., campus.

The programs are modeled on successful recent DOE and lab clean energy efforts in Greensburg, Kan., and New Orleans.

"To accomplish something on the ground, you have to have experts on the ground," said Mary Werner, the Lab's executive manager of integrated deployment. "Being there in real time is a critical piece in getting a community — or an entire state — to move in the same direction towards renewable energy goals."

Clean Energy in a Generation In Hawaii, two NREL senior engineers have started working directly with state officials, utilities and the private sector to help implement the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative (HCEI).

The HCEI is a partnership between DOE and the state that was formed in January 2008 to help Hawaii generate 70 percent of its energy from clean sources by 2030. It's an aggressive plan; according to the Lab's 2008 State of the States report, Hawaii ranks 46th in the amount of renewable energy flowing to its electricity grid. More than 90 percent of its electricity and fuel comes from fossil fuels shipped to the islands.

As part of the HCEI, Gov. Linda Lingle and state lawmakers met with DOE officials and researchers in July at the Lab.

On March 16, Paul Norton started as the Lab's senior project leader in Hawaii to work with the Energy Efficiency Branch in the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism's (DBEDT) State Energy Office. Norton brings 14 years of residential buildings research and analysis experience, but his portfolio will expand to include all renewable technologies in the HCEI.

NREL's second advisor, Debra Lew, is a senior project leader for transmission and integration with the National Wind Technology Center. Lew is helping Hawaii's utilities learn how to integrate wind and solar power on the electricity grid, and manage the effects of these variable resources on utility operations and costs.

"Hawaii doesn't have the benefit of 14 neighboring states to help keep a shared grid in balance when it adds wind and solar power," Werner said. "Each island has its own micro-grid, where putting in high levels of variable renewable energy sources will be extremely difficult to do."

Norton and Lew are married, making the complex field assignment a "fortuitous" pairing, Werner said.

Dozens of Renewable Initiatives In addition to new solar and wind farms and planned zero-energy communities, the state and the Hawaiian Electric Company are pursuing an undersea cable to connect several islands, and transmit an additional 400 MW of wind power to Honolulu and the island of Oahu, where most residents and tourists are concentrated.

Hawaii also is establishing a "feed-in tariff" that would pay a standard rate for power fed into the grid from renewable energy systems, and eliminating caps on the amount of electricity homeowners can send to the grid from their own PV and wind systems.

The NREL team's portfolio is likely to grow. Norton says state lawmakers are considering another three dozen renewable energy bills.

"Less than 24 hours after Debbie and I arrived, Gov. Lingle invited us to her office," Norton said. "She is strongly committed to this program."

High Tech Villages In Alaska, Brian Hirsch of Homer has been named as the Lab's representative in the nation's largest state.

Hirsch, who holds a Ph.D. in natural resources, formerly was development director for the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council, a coalition of 64 Tribes and First Nations in Alaska and Canada. His projects have included village wind turbines, a small in-river hydrokinetic turbine in the Yukon River and photovoltaic panels in Arctic Village, a community above the Arctic Circle.

Alaska is one of the nation's leading oil and gas producing states. It ranks 39th in renewable energy on its grid, virtually all of which comes from hydroelectric dams.

Hirsch will focus on bringing renewable power to a state that has among the nation's highest energy prices — as much as $1 per kilowatt hour in remote villages.

"He knows renewable energy and he has well-established relationships," Werner said.

Learn more about NREL's work with state and local governments.

— Joseph B. Verrengia


Updated: 2003/07/28