Survey shows overwhelming support for solar power

By Andrew Pereira
Published On: Nov 20 2013 06:33:00 PM HST

Solar energy advocates are growing increasingly frustrated over roadblocks placed in front of the once red-hot industry. They say Hawaiian Electric is moving too slow in approving new rooftop systems, and a legislative fix may be necessary.

HONOLULU -

Hawaii's once red-hot solar industry has slowed to a snail's pace after rule changes by Hawaiian Electric Company (HECO) took effect on Sept. 6. The new rule requires customers to be pre-approved by the utility before a photovoltaic system can be connected to the electrical grid.

Click here to watch Andrew Pereira's report.

Solar energy advocates like the Sierra Club and Pacific Resource Partnership are not happy with the change, and on Wednesday released new polling numbers to show the level of support for PV in Hawaii.

According to PRP poll conducted by Tulchin Research, 79 percent of Hawaii residents strongly support solar energy, while 17 percent somewhat support. The poll of 600 likely voters was taken Sept. 24 – 30, and has a margin of error of plus-minus 4.36 percent.

"When you see the number of 96 percent voter support, that's really universal support for solar energy," said Cindy McMillan, PRP's project manager of initiatives.

The PRP poll also showed overwhelming support, 85 percent, in making solar power more affordable. When asked if customers with PV should be charged an additional fee, only 5 percent strongly support such an initiative.

The Sierra Club piggybacked on the PRP poll with a petition that asked Hawaii residents to support solar energy in the state. In just the past week and a half, more than 900 residents signed the petition, with many sharing their frustration over HECO's lack of speedy approvals for new PV systems.

"Recognizing that we're in the middle of a transformation, we're going to have to really look at a lot of policies and potentially revise a lot of different things to make sure that we have a robust system in the future," said Harris.   

Rep. Chris Lee, who chairs the Energy Committee, said a legislative fix may be needed to speed up Hawaii's transformation to solar energy.  

"We want to be able to 'incentivize' the transition, help our utility move from a company that sells power to a grid where everybody produces power and everybody can save money," Lee said Wednesday in an interview with KITV4.

Hawaii Electric issued a statement Wednesday, saying it supports the continued growth of solar power in Hawaii as evidenced by the more than 35,000 PV systems that are currently installed on Oahu, the Big Island and Maui County.

"Hawaiian Electric is working closely with the solar industry and our other partners in government and the community to support this growth while ensuring the safety of our customers and our employees," the HECO statement added.

Meanwhile, the Sierra Club has been gathering stories from concerned residents who have received a loan and installed their PV system, only to be told by HECO they cannot connect to the electrical grid until they receive confirmation of a net energy metering agreement with the utility.

"So, now they're basically paying twice as much as they had to before," said Harris. "That's an untenable position and we need to work it out."  

According to HECO, customers who find themselves in PV limbo may soon get some relief.  

"We expect to soon share the progress we've made, as part of a collaborative effort with the PV industry, to address customers who had financial commitments for new PV systems before the interconnection changes on Oahu were announced in September," said the utility.

HECO also stated it's considering "possible actions" to address rogue PV systems. The utility has received reports of customers connecting their PV panels to the electrical grid without receiving the utility's permission.  

In an effort to prevent the surplus generation of electricity on any particular circuit, HECO now considers what's known as daytime minimum load (DML), or the lowest load usage on record for a particular circuit.

The Hawaii Solar Energy Association has issued the following guidelines for potential PV customers:

-  Projects to be installed on circuits under 75 percent of DML should get a letter to proceed within two weeks.

-  Projects to be installed on circuits over 75 percent of DML may require a circuit upgrade.  To allow for technical review, a response should be received within five weeks.

- Projects to be installed on circuits at or over 100 percent of DML may require a circuit upgrade and an interconnection requirements study.  A response may take up to 150 days to be received.

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