Hawaii Plans For Solar, Instead of Reacting To It

Hawaii’s utility is leading the nation by planning for increased solar on the grid, rather than holding back expansion as other utilities do.

Hawaiian Electric announced a "Proactive Approach" where it will take the initiative to determine how continued growth in rooftop solar may affect the utility circuits, and how the grid needs to be upgraded to enable further expansion.

"This proactive approach to distributed solar is the next evolutionary step toward transforming the grid to enable homes and businesses to produce their own clean power," says Earthjustice attorney Isaac Moriwake, who participated in fostering the change. "This wave is already happening, and it’s in the utilities’ best interests proactively to move into the future."

"Few, if any, utilities in the country have taken such a progressive stance on this issue, and this program will position Hawaii as the nation’s leader in the integration of small-scale solar resources," says attorney Tim Lindl of the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC).

In contrast, utilities often take an "unwelcoming approach," they say. They come up with conservative estimates on how much renewable energy can be fed into local circuits (generally 15% of peak load) and limit connections to that. That means if there are more people who want to add solar (or wind) beyond those levels, utilities require them to pay for  costly, time-consuming studies of the potential impacts on their circuits.

As more rooftop solar has been added in Hawaii, this approach has led to logjams of studies that burden utilities and stall or block new rooftop hookups. The proactive approach turns that process on its head, by tracking and planning for rooftop solar growth. When a customer asks to hook up a system, the utility can be ready.

Because of Hawaii’s boom in rooftop solar, Hawaiian Electric had proposed a moratorium on installations, but that was quickly retracted in response to public outcry. Since then, the utility has repeatedly raised the circuit penetration limit to accommodate more customer installations.

In October 2012, it raised the limit to 75% of minimum load (about 23% of peak) for smaller systems. California utilities raised their limit last year to 100% of minimum load, which Hawaii Electric is looking to adopt in the coming months.

In essence, this proactive approach aims to move beyond arbitrary limits, toward a grid that is planned to fully incorporate rooftop solar and other green energy.

In 2010, the state facilitated the transition by approving feed-in tariffs for renewable energy systems up to 500 kilowatts in size.

Hawaii is among the top six states for small solar. The others are California, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Arizona and  Pennsylvania.

And Hawaii leads the US in electric car purchases because of its high gas prices and extensive charging infrastructure, among other incentives.

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