Hawaii’s love affair with rooftop solar energy has turned into a gold rush. In 2012, as many permits for new solar units were issued on the island of Oahu alone as in the entire state over the last decade.
That, inevitably, has led to gridlock. Homeowners and businesses in some areas have been required to conduct expensive studies before hooking up new solar power to the electrical grid, which utility operators fear could become saturated with unpredictable do-it-yourself power.
Solar power advocates have long said such fears are overblown. On Tuesday, they announced what they called a “breakthrough” agreement with Hawaiian Electric Co., or HECO, the state’s main electrical utility, for a new “proactive” solar program to get the state’s energy grid humming with ever-greater levels of home-generated power.
Advocates say the agreement will allow Hawaii to venture even farther past the old frontiers of grid-connected solar power.
“In a nutshell, the utility is moving past arbitrary limits and taking the initiative to find out how we can enable more rooftop solar to be installed on the energy grid,” Isaac Moriwake, who has worked on the issue for the nonprofit environmental law group Earthjustice, told the Los Angeles Times.
Tim Lindl, attorney for the Interstate Renewable Energy Council -- a renewable energy advocacy group -- said the program would "position Hawaii as the nation's leader in the integration of small-scale solar resources."
In recent years, Honolulu-based HECO has taken substantial steps to phase in large chunks of renewable energy in response the state’s goal: getting 40% of its power from locally generated renewable sources by 2030.
HECO has been pushed by residents and business owners, who pay some of the nation’s highest electricity rates because of the state’s dependence on power generated by expensive crude oil shipped from Asia.
Tax credits — which are in the process of being reined in — also have helped generate the solar rush. Increasingly, citizens not only generate their own power, but feed excess electricity into the power grid on sunny days for others to use.
The unpredictable nature of that power causes utility managers to become uneasy when it constitutes too great a share of the power in certain areas, especially because Hawaii’s grid, broken up among several islands, cannot compensate for fluctuations.
Utilities began raising red flags, often requiring time-consuming connection studies that could cost tens of thousands of dollars, when individual “distributed generation” began exceeding 15% of the peak on a given circuit.
Hawaii pushed that envelope last year by adopting a more generous standard, allowing distributed generation to reach 75% of minimum daytime energy load--a different standard that translates to roughly 23% of peak load--before alarm bells are sounded.
As recently as November, the utility on the Big Island of Hawaii, Hawaii Electric Light Co., warned one prospective solar installer that solar power had already reached 100% of the minimum daytime power load on the circuit in that area.
Not only would he be required to pay for a connection study costing $7,000 to $12,000, but “it is the company’s opinion that there are currently no cost-effective solutions to address the safety and reliability issues that are raised in relation to distribution circuits with extremely high [photo-voltaic solar] penetration,” the utility said in a letter.
“I find this letter striking. It’s the first one I’ve seen where the utility company is essentially saying that they’re maxxed out,” said Marco Mangelsdorf, a Hilo-based solar company contractor who had proposed to install the 20-kilowatt system on a client’s property. “And they’re warning the customer that there are currently no cost-effective solutions to going beyond this current saturation level.”
Tuesday’s announcement suggests those warnings will become fewer as the state begins planning for ever-larger numbers of solar customers.
Already, utilities across the West are becoming more tolerant of solar power.
California, with its own solar feeding frenzy, leapfrogged Hawaii in September, requiring special interconnection studies only after 100% of minimum load on a given line segment is made up of distributed generation—a benchmark that Hawaii is also considering.
Moriwake said HECO's new policy changes the utility’s orientation from responding to requests for new solar connections—and tapping the brakes when necessary—to proactively planning for the full range of future solar possibilities and fashioning a grid that will accommodate them.
“This is cutting edge. No other utility has taken this forward, future-facing approach, I think largely because other utilities haven’t had to deal with it,” he said.
HECO spokesman Peter Rosegg said the company had met with renewable energy stakeholders in the last 16 months to find ways around the technical roadblocks that stand in the way of reducing dependence on imported oil.
“The proactive approach identifies parts of the grid where [photovoltaic] additions can happen more easily and at lower interconnection cost. It also identifies and implements needed improvements to the grid ahead of a request to add [solar power], thus accelerating the interconnection process,” he said.
Moriwake said that could mean the utility will begin installing equipment such as grounding transformers early to help meet future demand for new solar connections.
“In having to upgrade the grid, long-term, they can absorb that cost and turn it into a new business model of a two-way power flow, with engaged customers providing their own energy,” he said.