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Hawaiian Utility Company Moves to Stop Solar Energy

Solar industry and clean energy advocates reject proposal
February 24, 2010
Honolulu, HI —

Today, state and national clean energy organizations joined Hawai'i's renewable energy industry in protesting a move by Hawai'i's sole investor-owned utility company to bar homes and businesses that buy their electricity from installing renewable energy systems like solar panels. The move by the Hawaiian Electric Company utilities (HECO) to block new solar installations would apply to the islands of Hawai'i, Maui, Lana'i, and Moloka'i. Stopping new solar installations would continue the state's dependence on imported fossil fuels for over 96 percent of its energy needs and cause devastating harm to Hawai'i's growing indigenous solar industry. The groups protesting the utility's proposal include Blue Planet Foundation, Sierra Club, Hawai'i Chapter, and Earthjustice.

"This is a huge step backward for Hawai'i's clean energy future," said Jeff Mikulina, Executive Director of Blue Planet Foundation. "Now is not the time to put the brakes on the clean energy industry, local jobs, and customer choice."

The utility company proposed the moratorium in an ongoing case before the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC). The PUC had been considering "feed-in tariffs" (FIT), a cutting-edge program that would allow homes and businesses to get paid for power fed into the electric grid. A related existing program called net energy metering (NEM), which allows utility customers to offset their entire power bill but not actually earn any money, has achieved unparalleled success in the state, growing from just 22 kilowatt (kW) installed when it was introduced in 2001 to 6,763 kW in 2009, and increasing every year in between.

Last September, the PUC issued an order laying out the bulk of the FIT program. The Commission also directed the utility company to work with stakeholders in developing "FIT reliability standards" to facilitate the development of FIT projects. On February 8, 2010, HECO answered by proposing blanket bans on any and all power systems connected to the local distribution lines like solar power for individual homes and businesses, on every island served by the HECO utilities except O'ahu. The ban would extend to both the FIT and NEM programs, as well as any other distributed systems connected to the grid.

"Hawai'i's main utility company is ruining the state's ongoing clean energy success story -- distributed solar power," said Earthjustice attorney Isaac Moriwake, who represents the Hawai'i Solar Energy Association (HSEA) in the FIT case. "Our economy needs a power source that's as dependable as the sunrise, not one that's shackled to risky and expensive foreign fuels."

Ironically, it was the privately owned utility that originally pushed for the feed in tariff program. In October 2008, HECO and various state parties entered into an "Energy Agreement" outlining a broad clean energy agenda, including 70 percent clean energy use by 2030. One of the headlining features of the agreement was a "'feed-in' tariff system designed to dramatically accelerate the addition of renewable energy from new sources . . . [and] encourage increased development of alternative energy projects."

"This sends a toxic signal to the renewable energy industry that Hawai'i is closed for business," said Mark Duda, President of HSEA. "It backtracks on the promises in the Energy Agreement to move the state 'decisively and irreversibly' away from the use of fossil fuels. HECO's behavior sends exactly the kind of message that make investors run away and hide. Meanwhile, it will put existing solar contractors out of business."

HECO has justified its proposed limits based on arguments that more distributed clean energy will compromise grid reliability or cause generation from existing renewable resources to be "curtailed." Some of its exaggerated claims include solar panels going dead every time a cloud or bird passes overhead, or individual systems on home or business roofs bringing down the entire grid. HECO proposes to form a working group to study its concerns.

"Study is the universal code word for delay," said Robert Harris, Director of the Sierra Club, Hawai'i Chapter. "While HECO studies this to death, we lose green jobs, and the clock ticks down on climate catastrophe."

"We live on an island blessed by abundant and free clean energy sources, which we should put to use immediately," said Moriwake. "Our addiction to dirty imported fuels threatens life in Hawai'i as we know it. You don't stay in a burning house because you're afraid you might get hit by lightning."

In fact, research shows that distributed energy systems like solar can provide numerous benefits to the utilities and grid, including limiting the energy losses from power lines, reducing congestion on circuits, and avoiding costly, ratepayer-funded additions of grid and power plant infrastructure. Distributed solar is also currently the leading driver in Hawai'i's clean energy economy. Hawai'i has half the nation's solar water heating systems. Photovoltaic systems, while a more recent development, contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to the state's economy, and prevent the outflow of even more money to pay for imported fuel. A recent study showed that salaries in the energy sector in Hawai'i are growing at 8.4 percent annually.

"These businesses and workers are leading the charge for clean energy in Hawai'i," said Harris. "This proposed ban does a great disservice to them, to consumers who want relief from skyrocketing electric bills, and to all of us who will benefit from a clean energy future."

"In the end, this highlights once again the pressing need to move to a system in which a neutral, independent party makes these types of decisions for the best interests of all the people of Hawai'i, and not just the utilities," said Mikulina. "Such systems are in place elsewhere and have gone a long way toward eliminating the conflict of interest inherent in letting utilities decide who is allowed to connect to the grid."

Read State Senator Mike Gabbard's statement (PDF)

Contacts

Jeff Mikulina, Blue Planet Foundation, (808) 226-4987
Isaac Moriwake, Earthjustice, (808) 599-2436
Robert Harris, Sierra Club, Hawai'i Chapter, (808) 220-4306
Mark Duda, Hawai'i Solar Energy Association, (808) 735-1467

About Earthjustice

Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.