The latest skirmish in an ongoing struggle between Hawaii’s largest utility and the state’s solar industry was settled earlier this month when state energy regulators rejected a proposed moratorium on new solar intallations and instead greenlighted a program intended to accelerate small solar development.
The state’s Public Utilities Commission that would allow renewable energy projects of up to 500 kilowatts to get paid for the power they feed back into the electrical grid.
The decision came despite requests from Hawaiian Electric Company (HECO) to postpone the program over concerns that added distributed generation resources could destabilize the islands’ power grids.
Centralized or Distributed Generation?
At the heart of the conflict is how to meet the state’s aggressive renewable energy standards—whether with large utility-owned generating stations or from dispersed privately owned systems, such as residential and commercial solar installations.
“Will system of the future be a biofuel-powered central generation [plant] or a fleet of distributed generation?” asked Mark Duda, president of the Honolulu-based Hawaii Solar Energy Association, which opposed HECO’s proposed delays.
According to Duda and other distributed generation advocates, HECO’s move to postpone the feed-in tariff is one of several attempts the utility has made to tip the scales toward central generation. Earlier this year, HECO proposed a moratorium on new solar installations on four of the Hawaiian islands until it could conduct a study about how added renewables could impact grid reliability.
While HECO retracted the proposed ban, it continued to push for a deferment of the feed-in tariff program. However, none of HECO’s objections “appeared to be fatal flaws that warranted any further delay in the development and implementation of the FIT [feed-in tariff] program,” according to statement released by the PUC.
, which serves about 95 percent of the state’s 1.2 million residents, and other utilities to rollout the program within six weeks. Next, the PUC plans to develop a program for larger projects.
Feed-in tariffs are designed to encourage investment in solar development by providing renewable power producers with a long-term guarantee to purchase the power they generate. In Hawaii, project developers have had to go through lengthy negotiations with the state’s utilities to sell electricity generated from renewable projects.
The program would streamline and accelerate the development process by providing consistent pricing and procedures, and assure developers and investors can sell the electricity the projects generate, the commission said.
Driving renewable development in the state, where the cost for grid power is more than twice the national average, is a clean energy mandate that is among the most aggressive in the country.
40% Clean by 2030
In 2009, state lawmakers established a renewable portfolio standard requiring 40 percent of the Hawaii’s electricity to come from renewables by 2030. The state’s Clean Energy Initiative includes to meet 70 percent of its overall energy needs, including transportation, from cleaner energy sources in the next two decades.
“There is a concerted push in Hawaii to meet fairly aggressive RPS goals, but all ideas being advocated by utilities involve central station generation,” said Isaac Moriwake, an attorney from environmental nonprofit Earthjustice, which represented the Hawaii Solar Energy Association. “[HECO is] predisposed to big projects and has a blind spot to DG [distributed generation], and that’s something we’re trying to work on.”