Hawaiian Electric proposes plan to increase sustainable rooftop solar

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The Hawaiian Electric Companies unveiled a new program Tuesday to increase rooftop solar “in a way that’s safe, sustainable and fair for all customers.”

“What we’ve proposed is a plan to help solve those issues by tackling the tough technical issues to allow more PV and offer customers more options,” said Jim Alberts, senior vice president with HECO.

Under the proposal, new customers with rooftop photovoltaic systems would receive less than what current customers are getting back. Right now, customers receive credit on their electric bills at the full retail rate for electricity they produce: 29 cents per kilowatt-hour. Under the new plan, new customers would get back 15 cents.

HECO says this would credit customers at a rate that better reflects the cost of the electricity produced by their solar systems and it’s in line with how solar customers on Kauai are compensated.

“Do you think it could discourage people from getting solar?” KHON2 asked.

“I think it could,” said Leslie Cole-Brooks with Hawaii Solar Energy Association. “It could just be that it takes too long to pay it back. Also it’s unknown how it would affect leases and companies that do leases.”

Also under the new plan: different interconnection policies. HECO would more than double the solar threshold for neighborhood circuits, from 120 percent of daytime minimum load to 250 percent.

“It’s a step in the right direction, again, should be able to go much higher than that. But it’s a great indication that that ceiling has been raised,” said Chris DeBone with Hawaii Energy Connection.

Some lawmakers expressed concerns over fairness and equity, wondering how all customers could benefit.

“In my view, there are going to be folks living in these islands that will not ever have access to that,” said Sen. Roz Baker (D-South and West Maui).

“Case in point, plantation homes. A lot of homes structurally can’t get PV. There is a need for utility-level renewable generation, need for systems so that everybody benefits,” said Rep. Angus McKelvey (D-West Maui, Maalaea).

HECO is asking the state to approve the new program within 60 days. This new program would remain in effect while the state works on a permanent replacement program that would be created with a variety of stakeholders, including the solar industry.

The initiative is part of the companies’ clean energy transformation to lower electric bills by 20 percent, increase the use of renewable energy to more than 65 percent, triple the amount of distributed solar by 2030, and offer customers expanded products and services.

“We want to ensure a sustainable rooftop solar program to help our customers lower their electric bills,” said Alan Oshima, Hawaiian Electric president and CEO. “That means taking an important first step by transitioning to a program where all customers are fairly sharing in the cost of the grid we all rely on.”

Jim Alberts, senior vice president of customer service, added, “At the end of 2013, the annualized cost shift from customers who have rooftop solar to those who don’t totaled about $38 million. As of the end of 2014, the annualized cost shift had grown to $53 million – an increase of $15 million. And that number keeps growing. So change is needed to ensure a program that’s fair and sustainable for all customers.”New Transitional Program

Currently, existing customers use the electric grid daily. Their rooftop solar systems send energy into the grid, and they draw power when their systems do not provide enough for their needs, including in the evenings and on cloudy days. Many customers, however, are able to lower their bills to the point that they do not help pay for the cost of operating and maintaining the electric grid. As a result, the utilities says those costs are increasingly being shifted from those who have solar to those who don’t.

The new transitional program would create a more sustainable system and ensure the costs of operating and maintaining the electric grid are more fairly shared among all customers.

Under the current program, customers receive credit on their electric bills at the full retail rate for electricity they produce. This credit includes the cost of producing electricity plus operation and maintenance of the electric grid and all other costs to provide electric service.

The proposed program would credit customers at a rate that better reflects the cost of the electricity produced by their rooftop solar systems. This is consistent with how Kaua’i Island Utility Co-Op compensates its solar customers.Increasing PV Integration

If this transitional program is approved by the Public Utilities Commission, Hawaiian Electric is expected to be able to modify their interconnection policies, more than doubling the solar threshold for neighborhood circuits from 120 percent of daytime minimum load (DML) to 250 percent of DML. In many cases, this will eliminate the need for a longer and costly interconnection study.

To safely integrate higher levels of solar, rooftop systems will need to implement newly developed performance standards, including those established using results of a collaboration among Hawaiian Electric, SolarCity and the Electric Power Research Institute. These standards can reduce the risk of damage to electronics in a customer’s home and to utility equipment on the grid, safety hazards for electrical line workers, and even widespread power outages.

The utilities will also make strategic and cost-effective system improvements necessary to integrate more rooftop solar. They will work with the solar industry to identify areas where demand for upgrades is highest. Planning for these upgrades will also consider the needs of the State of Hawaii’s Green Energy Market Securitization (GEMS) program, which will make low-cost loans available to customers who may have difficulty financing clean energy improvements like solar.

To further support even more customers adding solar on high solar circuits, Hawaiian Electric will also be doing several pilot projects for “Non-Export/Smart Export” solar battery systems with local and national PV companies in Hawaii. These projects will provide real-world operational experience on their capability to increase solar interconnections on high-penetration circuits.

The company is also developing a community solar program as another option to help make the benefits of solar available to all customers, including those who may not be able to install rooftop solar (for example, renters or condo dwellers).

In an order issued in April, 2014, the PUC stated it believes programs designed to support solar energy need to change.

Across the three Hawaiian Electric Companies, more than 51,000 customers have rooftop solar. As of December 2014, about 12 percent of Hawaiian Electric customers, 10 percent of Maui Electric customers and 9 percent of Hawaii Electric Light customers have rooftop solar. This compares to a national average of one-half of 1 percent (0.5 percent) as of December 2013, according to the Solar Electric Power Association.

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