HECO draws ire of solar industry

HECO draws ire of solar industry
Published: Jan. 24, 2014 at 9:48 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - As the saying goes, it's not what you say, but how you say it that counts.

HECO is drawing the ire of the solar industry after a media release by the Hawaiian Electric Company touted "Rooftop PV enjoys another strong year in Hawaii".

Critics of the release claim, while statistically accurate for the year, the release is masking the true state of the industry.

"This is a bit like putting lipstick on a pig," said Robert Harris of Sierra Club Hawaii.  "The past three, four months we've seen PV installations slow to an almost slow to an almost complete halt".

On Sierra Club Hawaii's website, Harris states that "the permits for photovoltaic projects issued on Oahu in December fell to 1,140 from 1,925 issued in the same month of 2012. In November 1,040 permits were issued, a 48 percent drop from the 1,996 permits one year earlier. In October 1,246 permits were issued, down 49 percent from a high of 2,433 a year earlier".

That information is supported by the statistics kept by the Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.  Those statistics are available for the public to see on the department's website.

The cause of the slowdown is being blamed on a new policy enacted by HECO on September 6, 2013.  It requires customers and contractors to call HECO before they sign a contract to install or expand a PV system.  Before, the systems could be installed without such a call. However, HECO isn't denying this.  (You can read the full release below).

"They're acknowledging that it's slowed, I'd say it's more than slowed, it's really hit a wall" says Zach McNish of the Hawaii PV Coalition. HECO states that the move was made to protect the grid and safeguard consumers and contractors alike.  They stand firm to their claim.

McNish says he supports HECO's claim, but also says it's time to find a solution. "I think people want a grid that will allow them to install solar".

Below is the HECO release:

Rooftop PV enjoys another strong year in Hawai'i

Solar photovoltaic installations in Hawai'i continued growing at a strong pace in 2013. A total of 17,609 solar installations with more than 129 megawatts capacity were added to the Hawaiian Electric, Maui Electric and Hawai'i Electric Light Company grids in 2013. This is 39 percent more than was added in 2012.

The total of solar photovoltaic systems interconnected on the Hawaiian Electric

Companies' grids as of Dec. 31, 2013 is 40,159 with a total capacity of 300 MW. Of those installations, 96 percent take advantage of net energy metering, a program that began in 2001 to encourage the adoption of rooftop solar. With net energy metering, customers with rooftop solar receive full retail credit for electricity they generate and send to the utility grid. They use that credit to offset the electricity they take from the grid when solar power does not meet their needs at night or on cloudy days.

More than 70 percent of rooftop systems are on O'ahu. With 29,558 PV systems and 221 MW as of Dec. 31, 2013, 10 percent of Hawaiian Electric customers now have rooftop solar, a higher percentage than any mainland utility. On Hawai'i Island, 7 percent of Hawai'i Electric Light customers have rooftop solar. And 8 percent of Maui Electric customers have rooftop solar.

This unprecedented rapid growth in rooftop solar in Hawai'i has resulted in some neighborhood circuits reaching extremely high levels of photovoltaic systems. An increasing number of distribution level circuits have rooftop PV capacity exceeding 100 percent of the daytime minimum load, the trigger for interconnection studies and possible implementation of safety measures or upgrades before new PV systems on that circuit can be interconnected to the grid. This condition slowed the pace of rooftop solar growth in the last quarter of last year.

"Our first priority is the safety and reliability of service to all our customers," said Jim Alberts, Hawaiian Electric senior vice president for customer service. "At the same time, we remain committed to a strong, sustainable solar industry in Hawai'i. We continue to approve new solar systems for interconnection daily. And we are working to find ways to add more solar power, including on circuits that already have large amounts of PV installed."

Below is HECO's response to the criticism:

Our news release simply shared factual data on the total growth of rooftop solar in areas we serve. In 2013, rooftop solar increased almost 40% over 2012. We acknowledged installations slowed in the fourth quarter. You can read the full news release at hawaiianelectric.com.

The fact is that 10% of Hawaiian Electric customers now have rooftop solar, by far the largest percentage anywhere in the nation.  As we reach very high levels on some circuits, extra steps may be needed to ensure safety for all customers on those circuits and for our crews.

Hawaiian Electric is very supportive of solar for our customers. And we hope folks understand our responsibility to protect safety and to provide reliable service for everyone.

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