Hawaii’s Largest Utility Announces Plan To Triple Rooftop Solar By 2030

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CREDIT: Hawaii State Department of Education

Aiea High is part of a growing number of Hawaii schools harnessing solar energy through photovoltaic systems.

Aiea High is part of a growing number of Hawaii schools harnessing solar energy through photovoltaic systems.

CREDIT: Hawaii State Department of Education

Hawaiian Electric Companies (HECO) on Tuesday announced their intention to triple the amount of rooftop solar in the state, just one part of a plan that the companies say will make Hawaii the highest renewable energy-using state in the country.

Hawaiian Electric, Maui Electric and Hawaii Electric Light — known together as HECO — proposed a package of initiatives that they said would help Hawaii generate 65 percent of its electricity from renewable energy and slash electric bills by 20 percent, all within the next 16 years. While admittedly vague on how the initiatives will be implemented and how they will impact prices, the package includes efforts to increase energy storage, develop smart grids, and support community solar projects.

“Our energy environment is changing rapidly and we must change with it to meet our customers’ evolving needs,” Shelee Kimura, HECO’s vice president of corporate planning and business development said in a statement. “These plans are about delivering services that our customers value. That means lower costs, better protection of our environment, and more options to lower their energy costs, including rooftop solar.”

While the plan’s intentions may seem noble on their face, the package was actually released in response to an order from Hawaii’s energy regulator in April. That order required HECO to devise a plan for accommodating more renewables, including rooftop solar power, while reducing electricity costs. Those orders stemmed from Hawaiians’ growing frustrations with HECO, the state’s largest investor-owned utility, which had allegedly been making it very difficult for citizens to install their own solar panels.

Those frustrations are even more pronounced because Hawaii’s electricity bills have been historically been the highest in the nation, and many residents have turned to solar to mitigate some of the costs. At the same time, as more people installed solar panels in Hawaii and bought less electricity from the utilities, HECO began passing off its increased costs to solar power users, according to a PV Magazine report.

A poll on the issue found that while 94 percent of Hawaii residents support more rooftop solar, 90 percent believe that HECO was slowing rooftop solar to protect its profits.

In response to those frustrations, Hawaii’s Public Utilities Commission issued an order giving HECO 120 days to design plans to serve the public interest better. The deadline was yesterday, the same day HECO’s plans were announced.

Much of HECO’s plans include efforts to ensure the electric grid is stable in the face of more solar being installed. The utility said it would work closely with the solar industry to figure out just how much solar can be built and added to the grid every year without destabilizing it. It also said it would plan technological enhancements to the grid, as well.

If Hawaii can indeed begin getting more of its electricity from sources generated in-state, it is likely the state’s electricity costs will decrease. Part of the reason electricity costs are currently so high there is because it is dependent on imported petroleum for 70 percent of its electricity generation. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Hawaii altogether imported 93 percent of its energy in 2012. At the same time, utility-scale solar generation in 2013 increased nearly six-fold.