Visitors to Hawaii are often surprised by all the solar panels that dot the state’s rooftops.

Indeed, Hawaii ranked third in the nation in 2011 for the amount of solar installed per capita, according to the Interstate Renewable Energy Council

And solar companies fret that the amount of solar going up is quickly running up against Hawaiian Electric Co.’s constraints on the amount of solar the utility’s circuits can handle.

Still, solar energy only makes up a small amount — 3 percent — of Oahu’s electric grid, according to Rep. Gene Ward, who spoke Thursday at a joint committee hearing at the Legislature on the governor’s fiscal plan.

His comments were in reaction to the state’s recent curtailment of the amount of solar tax credits that homeowners and businesses can claim on solar installations. A recent report from the state energy office projects that Hawaii’s renewable energy tax credits will cost the state $174 million in 2012, up from $35 million in 2010. The number has raised concerns that the credits have become too costly as the the solar industry explodes.

But Ward says that attacking the credits could hurt a fledgling industry. He challenged what he says is the perception that Hawaii has “been going gangbusters” when it comes to solar.

Civil Beat contacted him after the hearing and asked him to clarify what he meant.

“The point is (the amount of solar) is very small. It’s very miniscule,” said Ward. “We have an industry that is in it’s infancy, and we are telling it to start eating meat and potatoes, rather than milk.”

The rate at which solar is penetrating Hawaii’s electric grids is slow, he said, pointing to Oahu’s 3 percent penetration level as an example.

So does solar really only comprise 3 percent of Oahu’s electric grid?

Civil Beat contacted Hawaiian Electric Co. and the state energy office to find out.

Noreen Kam, the communications officer at the energy office, said that as of 2011, the year of the latest data, Oahu obtained only .75 percent of its energy from solar photovoltaic panels.

In 2012, the amount of solar installed is expected to have about doubled, according to HECO.

But even then, the overall level of penetration on HECO’s electric grids remains small, according to Peter Rosegg, a spokesman for HECO.

The utility operates the grids on Oahu, the Big Island and Maui County.

He said that the utility didn’t have official numbers for 2012 yet. But a very preliminary estimate for all three grids, as of November 2012, puts the penetration level at 1.5 percent.

Bottom line: The current penetration level of solar on Oahu’s electric grid is probably about 1.5 percent. While Ward is a bit off on the number, stating that it’s 3 percent, his overall point — that the amount of solar energy on Oahu’s electric grid is small — is correct. Civil Beat finds his claim to be Mostly True.

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