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NREL Assigns Renewables Experts to Hawaii, Alaska

March 27, 2009

Photo of a doughnut-shaped vent near a volcano glowing yellow and dark red against a background of black rock. Enlarge image

A volcanic vent on Hawaii's Big Island glows with heat from lava than exceeds 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Hawaii has one geothermal power plant that generates 30 percent of the Big Island's electricity.
Courtesy of John Lund, Geo-Heat Center

Photo of a woman and a man wearing tropical clothing smiling and standing on a balcony of a high-rise apartment building with the ocean visible in the background. Enlarge image

NREL senior project leaders Debra Lew and Paul Norton have moved from the Lab's Golden, Colo., campus to Honolulu to advise the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative.
Credit: Paul Norton

Photo of rows of white wind turbines standing in a green meadow with the blue ocean and white puffy clouds in the background. Enlarge image

A 10.5 MW wind farm near the northern tip of Hawaii's Big Island has been generating electricity since 2006.
Courtesy of Hawaiian Electric Light Company (HELCO)

Photo of a native family of three in Alaska kneeling in the snow outside of their small wood frame home. The roof features a several photovoltaic panels installed at a steep angle. Enlarge image

This family's home in a remote village in Alaska is powered by a solar/diesel hybrid system featuring 4 kW of solar panels and two diesel generators. Fuel is expensive in Alaska and makes renewable energy a competitive seasonal energy option.
Courtesy of Northern Power Systems

Photo of a small log cabin standing at the edge of the woods. The roof is made of sheet metal and features four photovoltaic panels standing up at a sharp angle Enlarge image

Photovoltaics powers a visitors booth at Glacier National Park in Seward, Alaska. With 24 hours of sunlight in the summer, Alaska rivals Arizona for the amount of solar energy available — at least for a few months a year.
Credit: Richard King

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 project leaders 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