Learning From the Solar State-Hawaii

The world can learn from Hawaii’s impressive solar development and its associated obstacles.
Published: Thu 01 May 2014

Hawaii generates more of its power from the sun than any other US state. While this development is significant, the country has (and still is) facing a number of obstacles that the rest of the world may still have to deal with.

Solar: a brighter power future for Hawaii

Hawaii has almost doubled its solar power capacity every year since 2007, and in 2012 installed more solar than in the last six years combined. The reason? Customers are sick of paying extremely high electricity bills due to expensive imported petroleum for power.

The government realises that it needs to regain its energy independence and has set an ambitious goal: to derive 40% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030. By 2012, the country had reached 13%.

Solar has the potential to decrease a homeowner’s electric bill to zero, except for a monthly $18 service charge. Those kinds of savings, combined with federal and local tax credits, mean a Hawaiian homeowner can recoup the cost of a solar investment in just 3.1 years. Even if all the tax credits were removed, it would still take only 8.9 years for a Hawaii solar installation to pay for itself.

The obstacles-and solutions

The sharp escalation in solar power is creating a number of problems.

For instance, each island’s electric grid is isolated from the others, and therefore less stable than a typical mainland grid, particularly when it comes to unpredictable solar energy. But solutions are beginning to emerge. Better energy storage systems and weather-prediction technology are being developed to stabilize the grids. In addition, the Hawaii legislature is about to decrease solar tax credits which some say are too high.

Already, Hawaii is solving problems today that others may have to deal with in the near future.

Elaine Sison-Lebrilla, renewable energy program manager at the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, says that they are collaborating with the Hawaiian Electric Company to develop solutions to many of Hawaii’s problems associated with solar. She explains: “They’ll see these problems much sooner than us and the hope is that there will be lessons learned from them and we’ll be prepared.”

Too much power

There’s just too much solar power and the system is not designed to handle the two way flow of electricity. Excess rooftop solar is causing mayhem for the centralised system operations centre. The extra power is increasing the risk of a sudden spike or drop-off in power. This can damage generation or transmission equipment—even home appliances—and cause outages and grid instability.

For several years, Hawaii adhered to “The 15 Percent Rule,” which prohibits the owners of solar installations from producing over 15% of the maximum energy demand in a given day. Some homeowners, who wanted to install solar, had to undergo controversial “interconnection studies” to test whether their installation would overload their part of the grid.

Ultimately, infrastructure upgrades—probably massive ones—will be essential. Hawaiian Electric Company and several solar industry and advocacy groups have developed a plan for rolling out these upgrades. Utilities have to adopt a “proactive approach” to grid upgrades. Utilities have to prioritize grid upgrades in areas where there will be a greater demand for solar.

The technologies that will be used to redefine the grid are under development-smart meters and battery storage systems in particular.

While still relatively expensive, batteries will store excess power to smooth out power spikes and lulls.

Hawaii is an ideal place to test these technologies since failure of technology can be pinpointed immediately since the grids are not connected.

Uncertainty around solar tax credits

Hawaii is handing out a significant amount of solar tax credit dollars. Now state legislators want to reduce that spending. Some argue that the expenses have been overestimated, while the benefits have been overlooked.

The solar industry now accounts for 26% of the state’s construction-related spending.

In September 2012, the state’s Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism projected that Hawaii would spend more than US$173 million on tax credits for solar by year’s end—five times as much as in 2010.

How the tax credit should be handled is just one piece in a puzzle of controversies. The Department of Taxation administrative rule was also established to reduce the number of claims for multiple tax credits for one project.

These policy changes are creating uncertainty and will end up having a negative effect on the solar industry, says Isaac Moriwake, an Earthjustice attorney.

The solution to this uncertainty? A more stable tax policy. Cutting back on the tax credit may look like a sure way to save money in tough economic times, but uncertainty is the problem, not the tax credit.

Aside from the environmental benefits of clean energy, increased economic independence means that Hawaii’s energy prices won’t jump in response to oil price increases.

The wealth of benefits and revenues should not be overlooked.

Unpredictable solar

Hawaii’s weather can be very unpredictable and some reasons experience a great deal of rain.

The state is looking into solar prediction technologies which will help to stabilize grids in the face of unpredictable weather. With this technology, utilities will be able to plan ahead and adjust for spikes or dips in solar power generation.

Developing solar forecasting tools is one of the primary goals of the collaboration between the Sacramento Municipal Utility District and the Hawaiian Electric Company, and they’ve already begun testing such technologies.

The Sacramento and Hawaii utilities aren’t the only organizations working on such a project, but Hawaii’s variety of microclimates could make data there more broadly applicable than if the test were conducted in a lower-penetration and more interconnected grid such as Sacramento’s.

Hawaii’s high demand for new solar installations is expected to slow down in 2013, but one thing is certain: solar is not going anywhere. All eyes should be focusing on Hawaii’s solar obstacles and solutions since it would be foolish to reinvent the wheel.