Today, national organizations Earthjustice and the Interstate Renewable Energy Council, Inc. (IREC) commended the Hawaiian Electric (HECO) utilities’ path-breaking plans to enable more rooftop solar systems to connect to the grid. The utilities and clean energy stakeholders laid out a new and innovative “Proactive Approach” to planning for rooftop solar growth as part of a multi-party working group convened by the Hawaiʻi Public Utilities Commission (PUC), which just concluded its deliberations last week.
HECO will take the initiative to determine how continued growth in rooftop solar may affect the utility circuits, and how the grid needs to be upgraded to enable further expansion. This should ease the way for Hawaiʻi homes and businesses to install more rooftop solar. It also offers a model for other utilities across the country to follow as the levels of renewable energy increase on their grids.
“This proactive approach to distributed solar is the next evolution toward transforming the grid to enable homes and businesses to produce their own clean power,” said Earthjustice attorney Isaac Moriwake, who represented the Hawaiʻi Solar Energy Association in working with HECO, Hawaiʻi PV Coalition, IREC, and others to develop the recommendation. “This wave is already happening, and it’s in the utilities’ best interests proactively to move into the future.”
“HECO’s proposed proactive approach puts Hawaiʻi on the cutting edge of accommodating high levels of solar energy on the utility grid,” said IREC’s attorney Tim Lindl. “Few, if any, utilities in the country have taken such a progressive stance on this issue, and this program will position Hawaiʻi as the nation’s leader in the integration of small-scale solar resources.”
Utilities nationwide traditionally take an unwelcoming approach to connecting rooftop solar and other on-site generation. They apply conservative blanket limits on renewable energy fed into local circuits (generally 15 percent of peak load), beyond which they may require a customer wanting to install solar panels to pay for a costly and time-consuming study of the potential impacts on their circuits.
As Hawaiʻi reaches higher levels of rooftop solar, this has led to logjams of studies that burden the utilities while stalling or blocking new rooftop hookups. The Hawaiʻi utilities’ new proactive approach aims to get ahead of such holdups, by having the utility independently track and plan for rooftop solar growth so that when a customer asks to hook up a system, the utility can be ready.
Hawaiʻi is seeing a boom in rooftop solar, with year-over-year growth over the last several years. In March 2010, HECO reacted to this rapid upsurge by proposing a moratorium on distributed installations on the neighbor islands, which it quickly retracted in response to public outcry. Since then, the penetration of rooftop solar has risen further with no apparent ill effects, and HECO has raised the circuit penetration limit repeatedly to accommodate more customer installations.
In October 2012, HECO again raised the limit to 75 percent of minimum load (which roughly translates to 23 percent of peak) for certain smaller systems. California utilities raised their limit last year to 100 percent of minimum load, which HECO is looking to adopt in the coming months.
HECO's proactive approach, fundamentally, aims to move beyond arbitrary limits, toward a grid that is planned to fully incorporate rooftop solar and other green energy. The plan filed with the PUC outlines a timetable to implement the proactive approach that continues to 2015.
“While building a clean energy economy won’t happen overnight, we have little time to lose,” said Moriwake. “We hope this new future-facing approach will provide a roadmap for HECO and other utilities to become more rooftop solar friendly.”
“Hawaiʻi is a national trendsetter for renewable energy, and timely and efficient implementation is going to be key for this proactive approach to succeed,” said Lindl. “We will continue to track its progress to help keep up the momentum.”
The proactive approach recommendation was developed in a multi-party process called the Reliability Standards Working Group (RSWG), involving utilities, state agencies, and clean energy groups. The PUC convened the RSWG in September 2011 at HECO’s suggestion to deal with reliability concerns arising from increasing levels of renewable energy entering the HECO grids.
At the PUC’s direction, the RSWG formally concluded its work this month by submitting an array of recommendations and reports, which included the proactive approach recommendation. Other recommendations included proposed further refinements to the utility rules and practices relating to rooftop solar and other distributed generation, and a set of transparent reliability standards for the operation and planning of the utility grid.