Hawaii’s energy regulator got tough with the state’s largest investor-owned utility this week, putting forth a plan for Hawaiian Electric Company (HECO) to reduce energy costs and connect more rooftop solar systems to the electric grid.
“It is now incumbent upon the Hawaiian Electric Companies to use this road map diligently and promptly to move forward,” said commissioner Lorraine Akiba of the Public Utilities Commission.
HECO has been the target of substantial criticism from Hawaiians lately as customers have grown weary of sky-high electricity bills and difficulty installing their own solar panels to mitigate those costs. A recent poll found that 94 percent of Hawaii residents support more rooftop solar, and 90 percent believe that HECO is slowing rooftop solar to protect its profits.
The PUC ruled that HECO was not moving fast enough to address key sources of customer frustration, namely challenges connecting solar photovoltaic (PV) systems to the electric grid. “The PUC is giving Hawaiian Electric up to 120 days to come up with a more comprehensive strategy that can lower energy costs and help connect more PV systems to the grid,” KHON2 News reported.
The rapid growth in rooftop solar is catching utilities off-guard across the U.S. and many are fighting back against the trend due to the threat it poses to their bottom line. Quite simply, more customers installing their own rooftop solar panels means they’re producing more of their own electricity and buying less from their utility company.
The battle has grown particularly contentious in states like Arizona, where the state’s largest utility, Arizona Public Service Company (APS), has gone as far as to launch a multi-million dollar lobbying and marketing campaign against solar energy, partnering with dark money organizations funded by Charles and David Koch. The latest attack against rooftop solar in Arizona comes in the form of a potential property tax being imposed on customers who lease solar their solar systems — the vast majority of the state’s solar customers.
And Oklahoma, looking to get ahead of the looming threat, passed legislation imposing a fee on customers who install solar panels or small wind turbines on their own property. Gov. Mary Fallin (R) signed the measure last month but took the rare step of issuing an executive order emphasizing the importance of renewable energy and fair implementation of the new legislation.
The tension over rooftop solar is particularly heightened in Hawaii, a state with the highest energy costs in the nation and one that is dependent on imported petroleum for 70 percent of its electricity generation, a costly and environmentally destructive necessity. Hawaii’s energy isolation makes it a prime candidate for distributed generation like rooftop solar and installations have skyrocketed in recent years. In fact, “Hawaiian utilities have installed more than 42,000 PV systems through the end of 2013: 9 percent of the nation’s total, despite having less than 1 percent of the country’s utility customers,” according to data from the Solar Electric Power Association.
As Greentech Media points out, those record levels of distributed generation are posing a serious test to HECO’s grid, particularly on the island of Oahu. “There are 40,159 solar PV systems interconnected on the Hawaiian Electric Company’s grids with a total capacity of 300 megawatts, leading the U.S. in solar watts per customer and solar installations per customer,” according to GTM, and representatives for HECO and its subsidiaries have expressed concerns with the amount of PV people are trying to connect to the circuit, “either with the voltage quantity or safety issues.”
Regardless, solar energy advocates and Hawaii ratepayers are clear that HECO can do more to help them go solar and reduce their electricity bills. “While it should be a point of pride that Hawaii has the highest solar per capita in the country, it shouldn’t give us any reason to slow down,” said Jon Yoshimura, a Hawaii spokesperson for The Alliance for Solar Choice (TASC). “The people of Hawaii clearly want and expect more rooftop solar, and are looking to both HECO and to policymakers to advance policies that help increase access for homes and businesses.”