Power source and cost for rail transit still unresolved

People close to the Honolulu rail project including federal advisers have flagged electricity as a major unresolved matter and cost risk for rail. Whether HART or HECO end up paying, either way folks on Oahu are picking up the tab.

Honolulu’s rail project has been touted as a high-tech electric-powered feat of engineering. And it needs a lot of that power — 30 to 50 megawatts. That’s about a third to a half of what an Oahu power plant puts out, or about 15,000 homes at peak energy times.

“When we have heat waves like in the summer they (HECO) told us to conserve. How are they going to find the extra power for the train when it becomes operational?” said UH engineering professor Panos Prevedouros.

HECO said in a statement: “We’ve been working with the city and HART to assess the energy needs of the project. Based on our analysis, we expect to have enough resources to continue meeting the energy needs of all our customers.”

Always Investigating asked over and over how much it will cost and who has to pay for it, but HECO wouldn’t give specifics and even HART doesn’t yet know.

“They’ve told us that they can manage the capacity that we are going to require,” said HART CEO Dan Grabauskas.

When asked if it comes at any cost to HART, or how much of that infrastructure HART has to pay for, Grabauskas responded: “That’s an excellent question and not yet answered.”

“If we don’t have a new power plant,” Prevedouros said, “HECO is not ready to handle all this additional demand, period.”

Others see a possible out besides that: if enough homes and businesses cut back meanwhile.

“Energy use is actually decreasing,” said Jeff Mikulina of clean-energy advocate Blue Planet Foundation, “and this is a good thing. Folks are conserving energy. In that way, there could be some headroom.”

If there’s not enough power, what happens to people on the train at that time and people in nearby neighborhoods?

“Probably very little to the people on the train,” said Prevedouros. “The first thing HECO will do is rolling blackouts. When they reach a crisis point, perhaps the rail will be protected as a primary customer.”

gina power graphic

Ramping up utility infrastructure for the project is already coming at a hefty price tag. It’ll take at least $63 million just to relocate utility poles, lines and other stuff along the train’s path. HART is already planning to pay for that.

But Always Investigating found a whole new power substation is needed near West Loch, with HART and HECO still going back and forth over who’s paying.

We asked HART, in HECO’s own documentation, these things tend to be in the tens of millions of dollar range. Is there enough contingency for a hit like that in a change order?

“Well, there isn’t a range at this point, so we don’t really know,” Grabauskas said.

Documents we found reveal HART and HECO are even going back and forth over whether a certain vehicle will be okay for keeping power lines back from the guideway.

“This stuff you have unearthed here shows there is a lot of dysfunction in the relation,” Prevedouros told Always Investigating. “They don’t seem to be able to negotiate and finalize big things, but they’re also bickering for a single bucket truck.”

A HART response to federal oversight concerns about power reveals HART is looking at backup power because of HECO constraints. HART board members recently talked in open session about exploring an independent utility for the train.

Always Investigating asked the rail authority, how realistic is an independent utility for HART?

“I don’t know. We’ve been talking with HECO, expecting they’ll be the ones supplying power,” Grabauskas said. “But I know there’s a real conversation taking place. The Public Utility Commission is pushing to look at many different kinds of alternatives in the sphere of energy.”

How much of those alternatives could include renewable energy? Is it realistic to say that this rail, as planned, could go 100-percent clean energy?

“Time is short, but we think anything is possible,” Mikulina said. “It’s not an outlandish suggestion. California has put together a plan to power a high-speed rail with 100-percent renewable energy solar and wind, and other countries are doing this as well.”

HART is already looking at some degree of renewables like solar, even partnerships that would keep the cost down, for things like solar arrays across large flat roofs at stations and operation centers.

“We’re thinking there may be opportunities to partner with others in a joint venture that could see them making a capital investment and us seeing a reduction in our electric bill,” Grabauskas said. “Right now, we’ve got our sustainability coordinator figuring out how we might want to do that.”

But while the maybes are being dreamed up, HART and HECO still have to hammer away based on today’s realities.

Always Investigating asked HART, what is their position going into negotiation with HECO about who should pay for what?

“That’s exactly what the conversation is,” Grabauskas said. “If they’re actually building infrastructure that benefits more than just HART, then that should be something that’s borne by everybody because it does benefit everyone. If there are specific things HART is going to require to tie into the grid. I think that as a public utility, they’re required to charge us as any other customer.”

Since the taxpayers funding rail are largely also the ratepayers getting the HECO bills, prepare to foot the cost either way.

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