HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - State lawmakers want to improve solar accessibility by establishing a clear set of rules for Hawaiian Electric to ensure connections will happen in a reasonable amount of time and for a reasonable cost.
Last year, the utility rolled out a new policy requiring its approval before solar photovoltaic installations. HECO says the change, which went into effect, September 6, ensures its circuits have the capacity to remain reliable as PV growth skyrockets in Hawai'i. Critics say it crippled the state's half a billion dollar industry and has left hundreds of customers who were at various stages in the transition to solar in limbo.
"28% of the jobs in the construction industry depend on this. People are left in limbo right now with no end in sight whether or not they're going to be able to connect to the grid and it's the next logical step to move forward so that people can continue to save money by installing renewable energy and Hawai'i can continue to meet its energy goals," said Representative Chris Lee (D – Kailua, Lanikai, Waimanalo), the House Energy and Environmental Protection committee Chair.
Industry experts say there is more solar per capita in Hawai'i than any other state in the country, but that still only equates to about 1 in 10 residents which means the potential for growth is extraordinary.
"We're asking for clarity we're asking for long-term planning where HECO can set clear rules and clear regulations but ultimately that's going to need help from the regulators because HECO cannot be trusted to do this by itself," explained Bryan Miller, Vice President of Public Policy at SunRun, one of the nation's leading residential home solar providers.
Lawmakers agree there should be more checks and balances in place.
"Let's have someone other than the monopoly utility working on this issue and making it so we can move ahead," said Representative Cynthia Thielen (R – Kailua, Kaneohe), the House Energy and Environmental Protection committee Vice Chair.
"When you're a monopoly you normally don't have that kind of accountability because if you were in a normal business and you say something and then change your mind the next day and confuse your customers, people would stop being your customers. But people in Hawai'I don't have that option because this is a regulated monopoly. Regulated monopolies owe the people more because they don't have competition – they're insulated and protected from competition and they owe better than a constantly changing story," explained Miller.
House Bill 1943 would require the Public Utilities Commission to establish guidelines for Hawaiian Electric to follow to ensure people who are eligible for solar can connect to their grid in a reasonable time and at a reasonable cost. It also requires the PUC to initiate the discussion on upgrades to the Hawaiian Electric system for anticipated growth of customer generation no later than July 1, 2014.
"We're going through a major energy transformation and from that transformation what we want is fairness and equity. Customers that receive their services from the grid pay their fair share and customers that provide benefits to support a robust grid are compensated justly," said Mina Morita, the Public Utilities Commission Chair, during testimony before the committee Thursday morning.
Hawaiian Electric officials say they welcome the discussion but are concerned the bill's requirements may be unrealistic.
"When we start with a premise that every single customer will be allowed to interconnect than to me that is actually continuing to actually prevent us from actually knowing what is the real answer because I don't think we can guarantee that every single person is going to be able to interconnect," testified Scott Seu, Hawaiian Electric's Vice President for Energy Resources.
They say there are legitimate concerns about who should cover the cost of improving the grid to accommodate more PV.
"There are a number of circuits where anywhere from 15 - 30% of customers are on PV and we are already way above 100% of the minimum load. Let's say that we identify that we want to put a one megawatt battery on a substation to enable other customers to also connect up to PV. One megawatt battery is $2 - $3 million perhaps. Question becomes who should bear the cost of that battery? Should it be the remaining PV customers who want to hook up on that circuit? Should you spread the cost of that battery to all PV customers on that neighborhood circuit? Or as is suggested in the preamble to this bill, do you spread the cost of that battery across all customers on O'ahu whether they are benefiting from PV or not?" Seu testified.
"We do believe that rooftop PV is an important part of the energy mix in Hawai'i. The issue isn't whether we support it, the issue is how do we continue to integrate it in a way that's safe for all customers, in a way that maintains the reliability of the grid and in a way that's fair to all customers when it comes to the sharing of the cost," said Hawaiian Electric's spokesperson Cynthia Lin Sugiyama.
Lawmakers say everyone will benefit from a defined set of rules regarding to solar connection.
"I think it's in the utility's own interest to make changes themselves to their business model – to be a 21st century distributor of electricity so they can continue to thrive – but they're going to have to adapt in the face of new technology. If they're not going to move there themselves we have to help make sure they do because we need a viable utility with a sound business model," said Representative Lee, who introduced the bill.
House Bill 1943 advanced pass its first hearing Thursday. It now heads for discussion and review in both the House Consumer Protection and Finance committees.