Energy lab offers site to test storage devices


A recently signed memorandum of understanding between Hawaii Electric Light Co., Hawaii County and the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority lays out one of the biggest difficulties in adding more renewable energy to a grid: energy storage.

Companies are offering new technologies, NELHA Executive Director Greg Barbour said. But electricity providers, such as HELCO, are having a hard time determining which device would be most effective.

HELCO needs “to find a way to validate these devices,” Barbour said. “That’s where it started.”

Barbour is referring to the agreement that will allow NELHA to offer a testing ground for energy storage devices, not just batteries, but mechanized storage. The agreement is historic, Barbour said, because it’s the first time he’s seen a utility, a county and a state agency come together to encourage more testing of such storage devices. Hawaii County is offering $20,000 to help organize and run a conference on clean energy storage. NELHA, in addition to providing a location for the testing, will also help with monitoring and the related resources to track how successful the devices are at storing the energy and up to 30 kilowatts of power. HELCO will help expedite the approvals needed to connect the devices to the grid, as well as offer technical advice and support.

Storage has been a big issue when it comes to implementing renewable energy to an electric grid, because the times when certain renewable resources generate the most power don’t always coincide with peak demand times, and because renewable resources don’t always create energy at a steady, predictable rate.

“The more storage you’re adding, it’s the way to modernize the grid,” he said, adding that with more storage capability, more people can switch to photovoltaic systems to generate solar power. “Everybody needs to find a way to do energy storage.”

HELCO has limited photovoltaic in some parts of the Big Island, citing concerns about adding too much solar energy to the grid.

Hawaii Island, particularly NELHA, is a great place to test the devices, Barbour said.

“It’s really because of the Big Island’s geography and because we’re, to some extent, a microgrid,” he said. “We’re the perfect laboratory to test these types of devices.”

NELHA, which covers more than 800 acres, has a number of tenants that use a significant amount of energy and has a high penetration of renewable energy use, Barbour said, which also makes it a good site to test energy storage.

Storage device developers may claim a device retains 90 percent of the energy put into it, Barbour said, but without a real world test, it’s hard for a company like HELCO to believe. Barbour said he hopes the agreement, which will last for five years, will attract more companies in the precommercial and beta stages of device development.

Barbour will discuss the storage device plan, as well as a new long-term vision for NELHA, at a meeting and potluck from 5 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday in the Gateway Center. Barbour said in looking at NELHA’s 40-year history, the state, federal and county investment — about $150 milllion — has appreciated “considerably.”

To take advantage of the infrastructure there, the vision paper said, government agencies will need to maintain and complete the buildout of the seawater system, add power generation and storage to the existing microgride.

The paper also considers the possibility of selling seawater, brought ashore at NELHA, to the University of Hawaii at Palamanui and Kona International Airport for use in seawater air conditioning projects. The biggest cost of such a system is the initial capital cost, much of which has already been incurred at NELHA with the installation of pipes for other uses in the area, referred to as the Hawaii Ocean Science and Technology Park, the paper said.

NELHA is still seeking a partner to develop an 80-acre parcel for an Ocean Centerpiece, the paper said.

“The key to successfully developing this parcel will be finding a strategic partner with a long-term vision, adequate finance resources, and a strong desire to complete a unique, one-of-a-kind development entirely focused on sustainable living,” the paper said. “It is envisioned that this site will eventually become a world-renowned living laboratory and showpiece for green technologies that builds upon the natural assets at HOST Park.”

Ideas for the development include opportunities to directly engage national, corporate or university laboratories, marine research labs and support facilities for publicly or privately funded research or ocean-themed education and exhibits.

NELHA is likely 25 to 30 years away from full buildout, the paper said.