Doug McLeod spent four years as Maui County Energy Commissioner. He was a strong advocate on several key energy topics, and has brought critical analysis to many complex issues, including the proposed Oahu-Maui undersea cable. He also procured contracts for renewable energy installations at 23 County of Maui facilities, with cost-savings estimated at $10 million over the 20-year life of the solar PV systems.
Then three months ago, McLeod left the county to form DKK Energy Services LLC, a local energy consulting services firm. He has a bachelor’s degree from Johns Hopkins University in political science and a JD from the University of Kansas.
We recently chatted about a variety of energy topics, including the feasibility of Mayor Alan Arakawa’s recent call for 100 percent renewable energy on Maui and the idea that Maui would develop its own public utility co-op.
MAUITIME: At the recent Maui Energy Conference (Mauienergyconference.com), Mayor Arakawa said we should push for 100 percent renewable energy. How realistic is that?
DOUG MCLEOD: We’ve reached the point where reasonable people are no longer arguing whether it’s technically feasible to power Maui (or Molokai or Lanai, for that matter) entirely with renewable energy. It’s technically feasible. The real issues today involve cost and the debate over centralized versus decentralized power. As far as the cost to power Maui with renewables only, MECO has traditionally said it is too expensive to pursue. My own view is that we have trapped ourselves into a narrow view based on how things are measured on the Mainland.
On the Mainland, and in Hawaii until now, the approach has been to speak of one number under all conditions. One hundred percent renewable under all conditions all year. This approach does not fit the reality of our weather patterns. On Maui we should be designing a system that will be 100 percent renewable under trade wind conditions. There are times every year when a Kona front will hover over the island for a week providing cloudy low wind conditions. If we design a system for that one week a year we will spend an enormous amount of money on storage that would only be needed once or twice a year. We can afford a system providing 100 percent renewable energy more than 95 percent of the time. Yes, that will mean more wind turbines and larger solar PV farms, but it can be done with proven technology.
There’s a debate raging in the energy sector between a future where the utility is constantly balancing the load by turning things off and on (the “Smart Grid”) and a future where people power themselves with solar, batteries and a generator (distributed energy resources, or distributed generation). Certain technologies that seem well-suited to Maui, like pumped hydro-storage, fit better under the centralized model. This also would allow us to take advantage of the high levels of EVs on Maui. On the the other hand, it we’re serious about reducing the visual clutter of the existing infrastructure, the distributed approach benefits us all by eventually allowing us to take down some of the wires and poles. The distributed approach also has benefits in terms of cyber attack.
MT: You volunteered your time as Program Committee Chair to ensure the big success of the second annual Maui Energy Conference, which drew around 350 experts and enthusiasts to the Maui Arts & Cultural Center last month. For those who didn’t attend, or have yet to view it on Akaku, what would you say were the key points and take-home messages shared?
DM: All across the country, rooftop solar PV is moving from a curiosity to a mainstream product, and when that happens the utility finds that its customer is no longer a passive customer, but now also a competitor able to make solar power. The changes New York and California are proposing are quite revolutionary, and the Hawaii PUC issued an order on March 31 requiring MECO to develop a plan to allow customers to have battery storage at their homes.
MT: Your background includes serving as an environmental and energy lawyer, and business forays on Maui including the first Feed In Tariff PV system in the state. What do you see as you step into your current role as an energy consultant in the private sector?
DM: I am working on both new renewable energy projects intended to supply the utility and new construction where the owners want to evaluate going off-grid. So I guess I’m not choosing sides in the distributed generation versus Smart Grid fight.
MT: Mayor Arakawa has been garnering some eye-catching headlines of late, with talk of speeding the path to making Maui 100 percent powered by renewable energy, and also considering an alternative model, possibly pursuing public utility, co-op or micro-grid options. Do you feel his comments are timely and worthy of greater discussion?
DM: I think the pending merger between NextEra and Hawaiian Electric makes this a very timely discussion. The County is the largest customer of MECO and its voice should be heard. As far as discussion of cooperatives, a lot of people think that Maui could access the same federal funds as used to purchase the utility on Kauai. My understanding is that the population of Maui is too high to qualify for this USDA Rural Utility Service funding–though Molokai and Lanai would qualify. A cooperative could be a method of governance for Maui but not a source of funding.
Whether a co-op or municipal utility (“muni”), the source of funds for any purchase of MECO assets would have to be bonds issued by, or backed by, the County of Maui. To use a round number, let’s assume it would cost $500 million. That would require a real commitment from the County Council and I’m not sure they’re on board. I also think it’s important to recognize that the business of selling electricity now looks a lot riskier than it did 10 years ago. Do you really want to own some of MECO’s old generating units?
An alternative is to consider a role for the County as a “system operator” that would take over the transmission and distribution systems. This type of wires and pipes operation would not own turbines or other units. It would balance supply and demand, create a market price for energy, and give independent developers of renewable energy sources confidence that the rules would be fair to all but show a preference for renewable energy.
MT: What do you see as Maui’s primary energy challenges and/or opportunities, and what uplifting message would you share with readers as we approach Earth Day?
DM: We have the highest “EV density” of anywhere in the world right here on Maui. The people know what they want–and it doesn’t involve tankers of oil. In the end, the utility will lead or get out of the way as we move toward something genuinely sustainable.
Rob Parsons is the County of Maui’s Environmental Coordinator and a longtime MauiTime contributor.
Photo courtesy Doug McLeod