Rooftop solar on a house in Hawaii.
William Walker and his wife, Mi Chong, wanted to join what’s seen as a solar revolution in Hawaii. Shortly after buying their Oahu home earlier this year, they plunked down $35,000 for a rooftop photovoltaic system. The couple looked forward to joining neighbors who had added panels, to cutting their $250 monthly power bills and to knowing they were helping the environment.
Their plans shifted the day after the PV panels went up in early October. The Walkers learned from a neighbor about a major change in the local utility’s solar policy. It led to those 18 panels sitting dormant nearly three months later.
Hawaiian Electric Co., or HECO, in September told solar contractors on Oahu that the island’s solar boom is creating problems. On many circuits, the utility said, there’s so much solar energy that it poses a threat to the system and a safety issue. Studies are needed on whether grid upgrades are necessary. If they are, residents adding solar must foot the bill. And starting immediately, contractors and residents would need permission to connect most small rooftop systems to the grid.
The new HECO policy was included deep in the text of emails the Walkers’ solar contractor had sent, but it escaped their notice before installation. They’re now paying $300 per month on a loan for the panels, plus the $250 electric bill.
“It goes from frustration to outrage,” William Walker, 33, said of his reaction. “We hear the excuses that HECO provides, that they put out there at least as far as the justification. There’s really not a lot of substantiation. My belief is it’s purely profit-motivated, to keep people away from PV and keep them on the grid.”
HECO officials called it a needed precaution.
“We can’t allow circuits to become dangerous,” said Peter Rosegg, a utility spokesman. “We can’t allow circuits to become unreliable because there’s too much PV on those circuits.”
The policy change halted what has been a solar surge in Hawaii. Installations there jumped 169 percent last year from 2011. More than 4 percent of households have photovoltaics. Hawaii last year led the nation in the portion of its electricity that comes from solar, with 2.6 percent. The Aloha State burns oil to make electricity, and prices for the fuel have jumped in recent years, igniting demand for alternatives. The state’s tax credit for solar energy made it additionally appealing (ClimateWire, May 6).
The new struggle on Hawaii foreshadows what the rest of the country could face as solar moves closer to the mainstream, several involved in the debate said.
“Hawaii is a crystal ball into what every other state is going to have to look at as they start reaching higher and higher levels of solar activity,” said Robert Harris, executive director of Sierra Club Hawaii. “There is a national debate about what is the future model of the utility. That is happening in real time in Hawaii.”
‘I am from the future’
The Hawaii development comes amid battles in California, Arizona and Colorado over the future of net energy metering (NEM). That policy — which exists in some form in 43 states and the District of Columbia — lets households with renewable energy earn bill credits for surplus power delivered to the grid.
Utilities in states with growing levels of solar have argued that fixed fees and other changes are needed because customers with net metering bill credits don’t pay their fair share of transmission and distribution charges. The Golden State’s Legislature has ordered the California Public Utilities Commission to retool NEM by 2015. The new program will need to be “based on electrical system costs and benefits to nonparticipating ratepayers.”
Photo credit: Energy Wire
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