Why every state can learn from Hawai’i’s solar journey


As the entire country sits on the edge of an energy and climate crisis, the mainland is looking to Hawai‘i on clean energy policies. Perhaps that’s why the Western Conference of Public Service Commissioners chose to have its annual educational conference in Honolulu this year, with a focus on clean energy innovation and emerging technologies.

Hawai’i Senator Chris Lee
Image: Hawaii.gov

Last week, the Aloha State hosted these energy regulators and leaders to discuss the policies and regulations needed to ensure a reliable but also zero-carbon future. But the most valuable lesson was just beyond the conference halls. Hawai‘i’s solar energy policies are a model for the nation as we move toward 100% clean energy by 2045. Though getting solar right wasn’t an easy, or even linear path.

In 2015, our public utilities commission decided to end net-energy metering, or NEM, the billing practice of crediting solar homeowners for the excess power they give back to the electric grid. This was a huge financial blow to families who wanted to choose solar as a more affordable option to notoriously high traditional energy bills Hawaiians face.

Ending NEM for solar customers resulted in an 80 percent decline in new solar installations in certain parts of the state. The number of active solar companies on Oahu, the state’s largest market, dropped from 300 in 2015 to just 98 last year, according to the Hawai‘i Solar Energy Association (HSEA). It’s worth noting that this type of post-net metering falloff in the residential market isn’t exclusive to Hawai‘i, with Nevada and South Carolina experiencing similar declines after their respective NEM restrictions.

But what Hawai‘i realized in years following is that rooftop solar, especially when paired with battery systems, can be a powerful solution to drive to a 100% clean energy grid. Hawai‘i regulators, utilities, and industry have been working together to develop a program to leverage these distributed resources, and restore a full value when rooftop solar is exported to the grid.

The Hawai‘i Public Utilities Commission (HPUC) is finalizing a program that will allow Hawaiian Electric utility to utilize 50 megawatts of rooftop solar plus batteries to help provide clean power as Oahu island’s last coal-fired power plant is scheduled to be shut down by September 2022. In this program, enrolled home solar and battery customers will receive an upfront incentive to encourage enrollment, a monthly payment based on capacity of the battery, and a re-established fair export value for solar electrons provided to the grid for several hours every day.

This program demonstrates the success of radical collaboration: utilities, stakeholders, and industry leaders work together to make a more resilient, renewable, and local energy system. By advancing solar and storage at this level, we’re well on our way to meeting our aggressive goal of 100% renewable energy generation within less than two decades.

But what makes me proudest of these forward-leaning clean energy standards is how they came about through innovative cooperation between what might be seen as traditionally opposed parties. Valuing and paying for the benefits of distributed resources was revived thanks to an unlikely partnership between Hawaiian Electric, clean energy developers, and stakeholders.

I say, “unlikely” because across the country, investor-owned utilities are far too often at odds with home rooftop solar and storage installers and advocates. Take California for example, where utilities are supporting a proposal from California regulators that would impose a monthly tax on anyone who adds rooftop solar – upwards of $650 each year on a single household, depending on system size.

This type of proposal is not only making access to resilience solutions like solar and batteries more difficult for families, but as we found out in Hawai‘i, it will make it more difficult to reach clean energy goals efficiently and affordably.

I urge our friends in California and beyond to look at not only our accomplishments but our missteps. Ending NEM nearly killed solar for us, and our clean energy goals with it. Thankfully, it appears states and territories across the US are paying attention to at least protecting families’ right to self-generate clean energy.

An Arkansas judge just opted to protect households from a solar tax and NEM cutbacks. Puerto Rico recently rejected an arbitrary solar tax. Even Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed a bill that would allow utilities to charge excessive fees on rooftop solar customers.

Hawai‘i is proof that the impossible can be done; utilities and distributed energy companies can not only compromise, but collaborate, on innovative solutions that are beneficial to the grid, all ratepayers, and the environment. So, as energy leaders continue discussing renewable solutions, I urge them to emulate our successes rather than our past mistakes.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those held by pv magazine.

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