Star Advertiser Oped: It’s time for Hawaii to consider replacing monopoly power grid

By Gene Ward

Some of us are old enough to remember when “IBM cards” and the mainframe computer represented the latest technology.

For decades, these devices were used as early forms of digital communication and data storage.

As technology improved, however, the personal computer and Internet were created, allowing these devices to be phased out.

The Internet was developed by the U.S. government, in part to be less vulnerable to attack or disabling than a centralized system like mainframes.

Now, in a world where virtually everyone has access to a personal computer, it’s hard to imagine using a gigantic mainframe computer.

In many ways, Hawaii’s electrical grid represents the dated mainframe computer model; a large power plant distributes power across the electrical grid. While a centralized power plant benefits from the economies of scale, it suffers power-loss over transmission lines and makes consumers more vulnerable to power interruptions.

It’s time for Hawaii to start thinking about replacing this model with a better system. Decades ago this undertaking wouldn’t have been possible, but the availability of advanced photovoltaic, wind turbine and other energy generators combined with better energy storage (i.e., battery) technology allow for Hawaii’s electrical grid to undergo a much-needed upgrade. And so far, we’re the national leaders in modernizing our grid.

A micro-grid is a self-contained system of energy production, distribution and load that’s much more likely to get us off of fossil fuels. These miniature electrical grids can serve one, or sometimes several, customers and generate electricity from one or more sources.

Micro-grids are also connected to the larger electrical grid to borrow power when needed (e.g. on windless or rainy days) and return power when a surplus exists. A home equipped with solar panels, battery storage, and an electronic control unit constitute one of the most common, simplest examples.

One of the biggest advantages of micro-grids is their self-sufficiency. Operating completely independent of the larger grid is called “island mode,” a benefit that is highly desirable when the traditional electrical grid gets knocked out by severe weather or a natural disaster.

It’s about time that we allow electricity consumers in Hawaii to make the switch from the mainframe to the personal computer. Micro-grids are a cleaner and more resilient alternative to traditional grids. In the future we may even be able to connect them to electric cars to stabilize the power supply.

Despite this, Hawaiian Electric Co. is trying to hold onto the old mainframe model. It is likely that traditional power grids will eventually be phased out, the only question that remains is whether Hawaiian utility companies will drag their feet or take the initiative to adopt this new technology.

Let’s face it: The mainframe is a dinosaur and we’ll only ensure its continued survival by providing a monopoly on the food chain.

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