If Hawaii's largest utility gets its way, the islands' abundant sunshine may be wasted.
In February, the Hawaiian Electric Company (HECO) on a booming industry of rooftop solar installations, claiming that too much distributed power generation could destabilize the islands’ isolated power grids. It was forced to by the public backlash, but environmental groups and the solar industry say the utility is trying other tactics that will stifle the growth of renewable energy in the state.
“Although HECO is backing away from doomsday for the local renewable industry at this point, all they did was defer the problem,” said Isaac Moriwake, an attorney for Earthjustice who is representing the Hawaii Solar Energy Association.
“Instead of looking at the renewable energy companies going out of business immediately, we’re looking at that happening maybe in half a year or toward the end of the year. Now they’re facing the prospect of a slow strangulation instead of a shot to the head.”
The battle over the islands' energy is just one example of efforts by some utility companies to control distributed power and its potential to eat into their profits.
Hawaii, which currently gets more than 90 percent of its power from fossil fuels, has adopted some of the strongest renewable energy standards in the country. In 2008, the legislature approved a renewable portfolio standard requiring of electricity to be produced by renewable sources by 2030. The state and the utilities entered into an that same year that will require 40 percent of total electricity generation be from renewables, as well as 70 percent of all energy, including transportation, by 2030.
Two renewable energy programs are at the heart of HECO’s attempt to block installations. One, the net energy metering program, has been running since 2001 and allows customers who install solar panels to offset the cost of their entire power bill. Another project under consideration is a program like those already running in Europe; customers who produce more power than they need through solar installations would feed it back into the grid and earn money for that electricity.
According to Moriwake, HECO has proposed scaling back the net energy metering program, backing off a promise to move the cap on power produced under that umbrella from 3 percent of the total to 4 percent.
“As far as the feed-in tariff program, they’re declaring it dead-on-arrival” in some of the islands, he said. “So after spending more than a year trying to develop the program — and realize, they were the ones that proposed that program in the first place — they’re boarding it before it begins.”
Destabilizing the Grid?
HECO argues that adding too much intermittent distributed generation into the grid could result in destabilization issues, affecting the power supply to customers.
“We do believe that we need to work quickly with our partners in the renewable energy industry to resolve some of these technical issues, because it is really in all of our best interest to get as much renewable energy serving our customers on the grid as possible,” said Darren Pai, a spokesperson for HECO. He added that solar installations are indeed now continuing on all islands.
Others say that there is a point at which too much distributed power might disrupt the grid, but Hawaii is still far from reaching that point.