Hawaii's Solar Energy Revolution
How the proliferation of solar panels on Honolulu homes will force Hawaiian Electric Co. to reinvent itself—or else.
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“We have a multi-family property here, and $1,000 a month for electricity is just not sustainable. The solar company asked for my last 12 months of kilowatt usage, and then they came back with an interesting question: How much of that do you want to take care of? I said I wanted to take care of as much as possible. Our system was installed in February (2013). I got the impression that Hawaiian Electric was dragging its feet. It took until October to get me hooked up for the net metering. But our bill dropped immediately—all that was left was the $17 base charge.”
While demand for battery systems on Oahu has hardly been overwhelming, there have been a few takers. Bernie Boltz, who lives in a PV-saturated Aina Haina neighborhood, is one of them. His $43,000 system (before tax credits) features a dozen 12-volt lead batteries, which look a lot like ordinary car batteries and fit into an outdoor utility closet. The system was so new it was being installed in December as HONOLULU Magazine watched, right before HECO clarified the rules. “I don’t think it was a great leap of faith to do this,” Boltz said at the time. “I couldn’t get solar any other way.”
Not everyone in the industry jumped on the battery bandwagon. Mark Duda, vice president of RevoluSun, believes the daily attention to voltage and other hassles that current battery technology entails are more than most customers are ready for. “In our judgment, it’s not the right answer for most people,” he says.
Duda is part of the working group that’s been exploring ways to raise the PV saturation threshold. He’s optimistic that a fix can be found and that HECO will eventually embrace more widespread use of home PV. “Hopefully, this is the point where they get on the path to living with PV in a meaningful way, accepting it as a large share of generation, and starting to work really seriously on a business model that works in that context for them and all of the ratepayers,” he says.
Still, he can envision a day when the technology and the economics of severing your ties to HECO altogether start to make sense. Says Duda: “I think that at some point we’ll be in a situation where the customer will be able to say to the utility, ‘What’s in it for me? Convince me to stay.’ That will be a really interesting time.”
SOLAR BY THE NUMBERS
Hawaii’s historically sky-high cost of conventional electricity has fueled a boom in residents and businesses investing in photovoltaic systems to get away from fossil fuels. The steep increase slowed last year in the wake of tougher tax credits and saturated neighborhoods. Expect more proposed changes to the state’s renewable energy tax credit as lawmakers learn how much the credits have cost the general fund coffers so far.