Big Island finds ways around high electric bills
By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Big Island Bureau
HILO, Hawai'i Consumers on the Big Island pay the highest average monthly electric bills in the state, prompting some residents to conserve more, shift to other forms of power, or unplug completely.
Kevin Dayton The Honolulu Advertiser
Ray Carr and his wife, Maile Moulds-Carr, have made low-cost improvements to save on electricity costs at their Volcano-area home on the Big Island. Their new home in the Kalapana area will use solar power.
Kevin Dayton The Honolulu Advertiser
Retiree George Curtis is convinced he pays more than he should for electricity at his home in Honomu, and he is considering a solar water heater to shave dollars off of his utility bill.
In Ka'u, Steven McKinney built his home completely off the electric grid, relying on solar panels and propane for all of his energy needs.
For McKinney, the move toward energy self-sufficiency came when the Big Island's Hawaii Electric Light Co. told him he would have to pay more than $20,000 to have lines run to his rural home to hook up to the power system.
McKinney flatly refused, and years later he is convinced that he made the right choice.
"Obviously, HELCO isn't going to be lowering their rates in the near future," McKinney said.
In fact, HELCO's 66,000 business and residential customers may soon experience a rate increase that could nudge still more people to cut back or disconnect from the power grid.
The company recently settled a long-running lawsuit with opponents of its plan to expand the Keahole Generating Station in North Kona, allowing the project to go forward. HELCO officials say the Keahole expansion is necessary to provide power for the growing West Hawai'i communities, but the project is likely to have an impact on electric rates across the Big Island.
Rate increase expected
The company will sink $100 million or more into the first phase of the Keahole expansion, the largest single investment HELCO has made in the Big Island system in more than a decade.
So far the utility has not raised electricity rates to recoup that investment, but it is expected to eventually file for a rate increase to recover at least some of those costs.
HELCO President Warren Lee said the utility will not file for a rate increase until sometime after the two new Keahole generators are up and running next year. He said he could not estimate how large of a rate hike the company might seek.
State statistics show Big Island consumers already pay the highest average monthly electric bills in Hawai'i. Lee said rates on the Big Island are higher than on Maui or O'ahu in part because the Big Island electrical grid is larger and more costly to maintain, with relatively low numbers of consumers scattered across a large area.
U.S. Department of Energy figures for last year show electricity is more expensive in Hawai'i than in any other state, although energy consumption tends to be low here.
With Hawai'i's mild weather reducing the need for heating and cooling, the state ranked last in the nation for overall energy consumption per capita in 2000, the most recent year for which statistics were available from the Department of Energy.
By comparison, Alaska consumed the most energy per capita in the nation that year, using nearly five times as much power per capita as Hawai'i did.
Moloka'i, Lana'i and Kaua'i have slightly higher electric rates than the Big Island, but the state Division of Consumer Advocacy said Big Island residential consumers use more power on average and pay higher bills each month.
The average residential bill on the Big Island is just under $120 per month for 567 kilowatt hours. By comparison, the average monthly bill on O'ahu is less than $93 for 668 kilowatt hours, according to the consumer advocate.
Gas, water heaters options
Statistics like those have people such as Curtis looking for alternatives. Curtis already uses gas for cooking and hot water, but is still paying more than he would like for energy. He said he plans to sit down with his bills at the end of the year to calculate the benefits of a solar water heater.
"We didn't do it when we got the house because we thought we wouldn't be using that much hot water," he said.
Carr, who is energy coordinator in the county Department of Research and Development, has been gradually shifting to energy-saving technology at his home.
He uses energy-efficient light bulbs, purchased an energy-efficient refrigerator when his old unit needed to be replaced, and connects appliances to power bars that can be switched off to save electricity when they are not needed.
More low-tech solutions at the Carr home include low-flow shower heads to save on hot water consumption and hanging clothes under a covered lanai to dry them.
"I don't think we do anything exceptional," Carr said. "It's just low-cost stuff. We've just been doing it for quite a while now, changing the light bulbs and shower heads and all these silly things to see how far we can go without spending much money."
Those measures have cut the Carrs' electric bill by almost one-fourth, to $75 or less for their three-story, four-bedroom house.
McKinney, a retired systems engineer, took more dramatic steps to live off the power grid. He has a clothes dryer, stove, freezer and generator powered by propane, uses solar panels for heating water, and employs a photovoltaic system for lighting and other electrical needs.
During cloudy periods McKinney runs the propane generator to charge batteries to operate household gadgets, which include a microwave and stereo. He estimated his propane bill is about $900 a year.
"It's like a regular house, except we're not connected," he said. "We didn't give up anything as far as electricity goes."
Reach Kevin Dayton at (808) 935-3916 or firstname.lastname@example.org.