With electricity prices in Hawaii three times higher than the mainland, solar panels offer Oahu residents something very valuable – their own source of renewable energy. For homes and small businesses, the cost of installing solar panels will usually be offset by lower energy bills within a few years. And with electricity prices rising, solar panels seem like a better and better deal. Assuming, that is, that HECO, the Hawaiian utility, OKs your solar panel plan, something they haven’t done much of lately.
It wasn’t always this way. Until last September, anybody who wanted to use solar power could buy or lease solar panels and plug them in. But that came to an end when HECO unexpectedly announced that anyone installing solar panels would need special permission, which HECO hasn’t granted too frequently. The utilities says that this is necessary to prevent solar power from overloading the energy infrastructure:
"It's almost like you have a 200 MW power plant ... and you don't know what it's going to do," Scott Seu, Hawaiian Electric's vice president for energy resources and operations, said in an interview.
However, some see it as an attempt by a beleaguered utility to keep people buying their power. Honolulu Magazine described the threat that solar power poses to HECO’s operation as dire:
“We’re all looking for HECO to lay out a clear pathway in which it can possibly operate and prosper in this new energy climate,” says Mark Glick, head of the state Energy Office. “We haven’t seen that yet.”
Last fall, state Rep. Chris Lee, chair of the House Committee on Energy and Environmental Protection, put HECO executives on the spot at a legislative briefing when he asked how the utility planned to adapt if customers started leaving the grid altogether. HECO executives could not give him an answer.
“I really think HECO is on a very short timeline,” Lee says. “They probably have a few years left to radically change their business model and the way they operate to keep up with the changing technology and the marketplace, which could very well leave them in irrelevancy.”
Now, the utilities faces a new problem: rogue solar panels. People are installing solar panels and plugging them into the utilities’ infrastructure without permission. Many of these people may not realize what they’ve done – solar installation companies may be misleading people:
Leslie Cole-Brooks, executive director of the Hawaii Solar Energy Association, said that the industry has lost at least hundreds of jobs, and that to stay afloat, some PV companies are installing systems and turning them on without approval from the electric utility.
“They’re telling customers that they have pre-approved systems or that they don’t need approval,” she said in an exclusive interview with PBN. “[But] the customer is liable, so we have asked the utility several times to pursue it and turn the systems off.”
HECO is now taking out ads warning people that if they don’t have the right permissions, their solar systems could be disconnected.