In the wake of the volcanic eruption that began on May 3, Hawaii Electric Light (HELCO) is tracking developments from afar and trying to plan for fast solutions to remote communities that are at risk of losing power due to the lava fissures.
The Kilauea volcano on the state's Big Island has impacted two residential areas as well as some remote communities, but the volcanic activity is too unpredictable to risk additional linework and service work.
At the helm of the utility's efforts is HELCO President Jay Ignacio, who told Utility Dive on Monday that unmanned aerial vehicles have been the only way for them to survey the damage now, due to the precautions being taken against the open fissures and poisonous gases.
"At this time we are not doing any kind of field exploration of the damage, or trying to stabilize any of the poles," Ignacio said. "We’re not ready to do that right now."
According to the utility, efforts are underway to model scenarios to provide power to small coastal communities, including traditional generators and portable solar-battery-generator "packages," in addition to rebuilding and protecting utility pole infrastructure.
Ignacio added that "we could not and should not make projections" about the impact of the fissures, given the volatility, but that HELCO has identified two remote communities that could require extra support due to activity from the latest fissure. He said Kapoho, a coastal community with approximately 400 power customers, could be impacted by damage to pole infrastructure.
He also said HELCO is trying to create "really small microgrids," should the lava impact remote communities.
"We’re trying to look at novel ideas of using small PV and battery systems to at least provide power — backup power — in the event we lose that radio feed because they would be isolated from the grid," Ignacio said.
"The company has been doing an excellent job keeping us advised of their efforts in the situation," Delmond Won, Hawaii State Public Utilities Commission's executive officer, told Utility Dive on Tuesday. "And, frankly, there's nothing for us to criticize."
One facility affected
Regarding system impacts, the Puna Geothermal Venture (PGV) is the only power generation facility affected by the eruption, so far.
PGV sells power to HELCO and is responsible for about 25% of the island's electricity, but the utility said it has sufficient power generation available to meet the island’s needs after the plant's shutdown.
HELCO boasts the highest percentage of renewable energy in the state, with about 57% of power capacity coming from renewable sources such as wind, solar, hydro and geothermal.
The utility is in the request for proposal process for another 20 MW of renewable energy and a 21.5 biomass facility is scheduled to come online at the end of the year on the east side of the island, Won said.
Slow predictable lava
Comparing the response and actions between now and the most recent eruption, in 2014, is like comparing apples and oranges. The crater eruption in 2014 had very slow lava advancement, with no other sources of lava cropping up close to populated areas, making it predictable enough to track. HELCO's Ignacio was running the show back then, too.
In 2014, Ignacio said that HELCO built some infrastructure around specific wooden transmission poles which were selected based on predictions of where the lava flow would end up. HELCO worked with geologists to design a concrete cover, wrapping the pole with heat resistant materials, back-filling it with cinder. "It worked for delaying the eventual damage of the pole," but lava temperatures overcame the protection barrier in the end, Ignacio said.
However, as he said, the science of predicting where fissures will open and erupt is not exact. It is harder to track with this year's event, as there are multiple sources of lava with "indications of a possible eruption right in populated areas."
Despite ground swellings or cracks opening up, there was "no real way to predict where fissures would open up, so on that basis, we didn't try to preposition and protect any infrastructure," Ignacio said.
Poles and wires continue to fall due to changes in the ground formation and seismic activity. We continue to warn Hawaii Island residents to assume that all downed lines and equipment are energized and dangerous.https://t.co/uuWaNRF2rF pic.twitter.com/FCZuqzeUub— HawaiiElectricLight (@HIElectricLight) May 18, 2018
Fissures continue to open and re-open along a path that leads through a mostly rural area to the ocean, according to HELCO. Hundreds of customers and critical infrastructure including distribution lines lie in that path.
Volatile eruptions led HELCO to dismiss pole hardening as an option, especially given the great number of wooden poles in the subdivisions affected and the fact that the 2014 design wasn't able to fully withstand the lava.
"At this point, it’s just not sensible to try and protect all the infrastructure," Ignacio said.
Given the lack of access and the dangerous, volatile conditions, the PUC thinks HELCO is "handling the situation as well as anybody could," Won said.
When it rains, it pours ... or quakes
The largest earthquake to hit the island since 1975 hit just a day after the volcanic eruption began. Following the 6.9 magnitude earthquake, HELCO "incurred some damage to two, maybe three, of our substations," primarily to connectors, Ignacio said.
The incident also led to 14,000 customers briefly losing power, due to a problem at one of HELCO's switching stations, Ignacio said.
Since then, hundreds of smaller quakes and tremors have taken place across the island, but no major damage occurred to electrical infrastructure, Ignacio said.
"We are quite pleased" with the resiliency of the power system through the 6.9 magnitude earthquake, he told Utility Dive.
No power generating sources were directly impacted by the earthquake. Going forward, Ignacio said additional damage will be difficult to predict due to the volatile nature of the fissures.