Not Just A Pretty Place: Maui’s Smart Grid Innovation

Beautiful beaches. Exotic food. Wind turbines and electric cars. Maui–forced to use a lot of renewable energy out of necessity–is now leading the way in using it the most efficiently.

Not Just A Pretty Place: Maui’s Smart Grid Innovation
Come for the hula, stay for the wind power. Flickr user MrTavis

Islands are the places to go for smart grid projects. We’ve mentioned El Hierro, off Spain. There’s also Malta. And Bornholm, in Denmark, the site of the European Union’s EcoGrid. And now Maui.



Yes. Hawaii’s second largest island is emerging as a smart grid hotbed, with two big projects, and a host of companies and research groups testing various technologies.

The $14 million Maui Smart Grid Project, which is funded by the Department of Energy, is currently signing up 200 volunteers to pilot smart meters and energy displays, with the aim encouraging more off-peak consumption, and keeping the grid in better balance.

At the same time, a $37m Japanese-U.S. project, led by Hitachi, and the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization, a Japanese government agency, is looking at how to integrate Maui’s renewable energy generation to its growing numbers of electric vehicles.

Jay Griffin, project director of the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute at the University of Hawaii, says the projects are partly about pure research, but also driven by necessity.

In the last few years, Maui has added 30MW of wind capacity, with 42MW more in the planning stages. The fear is that it won’t have enough reserve power if these intermittent sources fail to deliver–as they have several times recently (Griffin says the entire output of island’s wind farm has failed in 10 minutes). When it does fail, it really defeats the purpose: Much of Maui’s backup comes from diesel generators dating from the ’50s and ’60s.


“There are proposals for quite a bit more wind power and you run into a point where you run out of power plants as reserve to balance things. It becomes a self-defeating equation,” he says.

At the same time, high electricity prices have encouraged investment in roof-top solar panels; such capacity has doubled every year since 2005. Hawaii as a whole has the highest electricity prices in the U.S.. Residents pay 36.23 cents per kWh, almost double New York, the next costliest state (19.22 cents per kWh).

Maui’s grid is currently so unbalanced that it can’t use some of its wind power. At night, there is too much supply, and some of the output has to be “curtailed.” “It looks particularly challenging with the next wind plant being built, and the one after that would be curtailed most hours of the day,” Griffin says.

One of the aims of the smart grid projects is therefore to use more power at the moment it is produced–-for example, by getting people to charge their EVs at night.

“One of the things we hope to learn is what incentives may be needed to promote greater adoption of vehicles and different charging patterns,” Griffin says.

“We already have a time-of-use rate. But you could imagine more sophisticated ways of managing charging. If you knew that renewable energy was being curtailed at a certain moment, you could set an extra low rate to capture that power.”


Nissan and Chevy have both chosen Hawaii as an early market for their EVs, and Griffin says there is a lot of interest in whether the Japanese-led project can prove the worth of EVs as grid balancers.

“The hope is that this system will prove out the ability to manage a fleet of vehicles by varying the charging rates while still meeting people’s expectations. There is a pretty exciting level of attention from all these parties right now.”

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.