Hawaiian Electric Halts Local Boom in Solar PV

Friday, January 10th, 2014
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The surging popularity of solar photovoltaics in the idyllic island state of Hawaii has compelled local utilities to clamp down on their adoption.

A recent surge in installations has made Hawaii the US leader in the use of solar energy, deriving around 2.6 per cent of its power from photovoltaics. Following a 169 per cent year-on-year leap in solar adoption in 2011, over four per cent of homes in the Aloha state are currently equipped with photovoltaics.

On the island of Oahu, which is host to 80 per cent of the state’s population, 10 per cent of utility customers are set to have rooftop solar by the end of the year.

In addition to a geographic location which is highly propitious for the adoption of solar power, other factors which have fostered this sharp uptake in photovoltaics includes rising electricity prices – the result of increases in the cost of the oil used for power generation – as well as the provision of tax credits for solar energy.

A recent policy change has brought an abrupt halt to the Aloha state’s solar boom, however.

Hawaiian Electric Co. (HECO) has informed contractors and residents on Oahu that they must request permission to connect even small rooftop systems to the grid, as well as foot the bill for installation.

According to HECO, the solar boom in Hawaii has created a surfeit of photovoltaic energy which threatens the integrity of the local powers system and poses a significant safety threat.

A HECO spokesman has said the utility cannot allow the circuits to become “dangerous” or “unreliable” as a result of “too much PV on those circuits.”

According to HECO’s Peter Rosegg, the utility’s grid was never designed to convey power in two directions, and a surfeit of energy created by all the new PV installations could lead to “overvoltage,” which in turn could cause surges and reliability issues.

Residents have lambasted HECO’s decision, however, accusing the utility of acting purely out of profit motivations in a bid to keep households dependent on the grid and away from solar PV.

Members of industry have also warned that HECO’s response to the solar boom could be a portent of what’s to come in other markets in the US, as conventional power providers seek to shore up their position.

Charles Wang of the Hawaii ECO Project recently informed a San Diego solar conference that events in Hawaii should serve as a cautionary tale for the industry in other parts of America.

“The utility is [an] 800-pound gorilla,” he said. “If you push it to the corner of the room, it’s going to fight back. That’s what’s happening right now.”

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