Jim Alberts, Senior Vice President for Customer Service at Hawaiian Electric Company, spearheads the utility’s integration of distributed energy resources to help reach Hawaii’s mandate to run 100 percent on renewables by 2045.
Why are you interested in serving on the SEPA Board of Directors?
In Hawaii, most parties quickly aligned behind the commitment to reach a 100% renewable portfolio by 2045, but the agreement on the transition to achieve that goal has been more challenging. There is a tremendous need for objective and credible sources to provide input into the transition, but not in a one size fits all approach, one that recognizes the differing needs across customers, markets and operating areas. This will take a comprehensive view of the policy, technical, economic and cultural factors in a framework that has the flexibility to adapt in geographies with different needs and resources. It is the collaborative exploration of alternatives that will guide us through the transition with objective facts, so I align with SEPA’s approach of focusing on the “smart transition”. I would enjoy working on the transition on behalf of all SEPA members.
It is not uncommon in Hawaii to read news coverage that soon customers will choose to go off the grid, so I think it is also important to advance education material to help see that is a flawed strategy. While it may sound novel, it is actually harmful to our communities, and a huge distraction to achieving a 100% renewable commitment that is diversified and resilient for our customers. Grids and DER’s can and should co-exist to jointly provide optimal solutions for customers, and this requires a significant investment in education, research and collaboration to make sure the best of all solutions are utilized for customers. Hawaii is facing many of these issues first, so I believe input from Hawaii can benefit the work being done.
We know that the future will provide new technologies, and they will continue to evolve, so we should think of the grid as a way to share those achievements with everyone, diversification is a great strategy, especially on our island grids without any transmission interconnections to other markets. It will also require a holistic approach beyond a discussion of generating asset technologies to include the right regulatory frameworks for utilities to remain strong businesses in order to best serve customers and communities.
How does SEPA’s mission line up with the interests of you and your organization?
It was clear during SEPA’s 2015 fact finding mission to Hawaii, that there is strong alignment between SEPA’s mission, my personal interests, and the mission of Hawaiian Electric. Being part of the discussion sessions allowed me to assess this from first-hand experience.
Hawaiian Electric’s mission is to provide innovative energy leadership for Hawaii, and SEPA’s mission is to facilitate the utility industry’s smart transition to a clean energy future through education, research and collaboration. My personal goal is to continuously improve, adding optimal customer value; which facilitates the virtuous circle. When I compare the missions of each, they are mutually beneficial.
One characteristic is specifically memorable for me as I have worked with SEPA. SEPA is an organization demonstrating that it seeks to put more options on the table rather than limiting choices, and that lines up very well with my personal goals and Hawaiian Electric’s customer focused objectives. Customer segments are different, each island is different, and the optimal resource mix for each solution is different, so it only makes sense to understand the options that can facilitate the best possible decision making in a transparent way.
This is supported by customer feedback in recent surveys for Hawaii that highlight their energy priorities (listed below). Focusing on customer requirements will allow us to create better customer engagement in Hawaii, so that customers can benefit from their participation in future energy markets achieved through the transition to a clean energy future. Emphasis must be placed on providing benefits to all customers rather than only to those that have the means to invest directly in renewable resources. Of course, a similar but flexible approach is usable in all jurisdictions as one size does not fit all.
What do you see as the major obstacles to energy system innovation and how are you addressing them? Is there a particular program at your company you can point to?
For me, there are a couple of higher order obstacles that can get in the way of innovation. The first category would be lack of alignment between the stakeholder groups critical to the acceptance of the changes that are needed. Ultimately, if a common understanding can’t be reached on the direction, the pace of innovation will not keep up with customer expectations. The second category deals with risk, and the reward structure that reinforces the need for innovation. If the risk and reward equation are out of balance, it will tend to stymie innovation. If alignment on the change is achieved, and the reinforcements are there to incentivize the right behavior, then the innovation cycle works pretty well.
The good news in Hawaii is that we are on the forefront of innovation in many regards, so there are lots of examples of our internal innovation, as well as our local and national market partners bringing innovation to the table to solve the policy, technical, economic and cultural issues we face when changing the energy system. We do have dedicated teams assigned to work on customer solutions and technical solutions that are focused on helping customers, but the important part is that they don’t work in silos. At Hawaiian Electric, we take a holistic approach so we derive benefits for all of our customers. One special opportunity we have is our relationship with the Energy Excelerator program. They help identify startup companies that can bring the latest innovative thinking to bear solving energy issues, with an effective process to bring them to market. We have many other partners we are fortunate to work with as well, such as EEI, EPRI, and NREL.
Jim joins 20 other members of our Board of Directors. To learn more, read about SEPA's mission and the full press release.