Hawaii Utility Now Open For Rooftop Solar Biz

State is leading the way to a national clean energy future

Solar panels on the roof of the Kapiʻolani Medical Center parking garage in Oahu, Hawaiʻi.
Solar panels on the roof of the Kapiʻolani Medical Center parking garage in Oahu, Hawaiʻi. (Matt Mallams for Earthjustice)

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Clean energy future—you hear the term a lot these days. Can we really get there? The answer is coming into focus in several places in the U.S. and it’s a resounding yes!

Hawaiʻi is charging ahead with rooftop solar energy systems. Just this week we are getting word that a major obstacle to more rooftop installation there has been resolved. Earthjustice attorney Isaac Moriwake emerged after months of behind-the-scenes negotiations to announce a deal whereby Hawaiʻi’s main electric utility company, known as HECO, will devote resources over the next two years to smooth the way for more rooftop solar.

Until recently, HECO was telling homeowners that its electrical grid could only handle so much electricity from rooftop solar energy systems and might break if too much electricity was fed into the local lines. HECO stalled new rooftop hookups, saying costly and time consuming studies of the grid would be needed before more homeowners could convert to solar energy.

Under encouragement from Moriwake and representatives of the solar industry, the big utility has agreed to review its grid to spot weaknesses that might hinder more rooftop hookups and to fix them over the next two years. Despite an abundance of sun and wind, Hawaiʻi has relied on burning imported oil for over 90 percent of its energy needs. Reliance on oil should drop significantly with more rooftops supplying the energy needs of the state.

A similar success story is shaping up in California, which has already achieved its target to have 35 percent of its energy coming from renewable sources by 2020.

This raises the question, what is the proper role and function of the electrical utility company of the future?

We’ve always relied on big, centralized utility plants to generate and transmit the power we use. Now that we are generating more of our own power on rooftops, might the utility of the future shift toward managing the network of power lines to move that energy to where it’s needed, for instance during the day when homeowners are away at work?

If rooftop solar systems generate more power than the home uses, might the utility of the future provide communities with a communal storage battery of some sort? Large for-profit investor owned utilities might be understandably slow to embrace a new paradigm where they no longer supply and sell all the power society uses, but this seems to be one vision emerging around the nation and around the world.

John was Earthjustice’s Media Director and chief press wrangler from 2001 until 2013. He came to Earthjustice in 2001 to defend freshwaters and public land—and salmon.

Established in 1988, Earthjustice's Mid-Pacific Office, located in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi, works on a broad range of environmental and community health issues, including to ensure water is a public trust and to achieve a cleaner energy future.