Tensions between Hawaiian Electric Co. and the solar industry may be at an all-time high.

Last month, HECO informed solar companies that customers in areas where there is already a high concentration of solar could have to pay more for studies and technology upgrades if they want to hook a solar system up to the utility’s electric grid.

With solar sales soaring in recent years, the utility says it must move forward more cautiously to ensure that the increasing power intake doesn’t cause power outages or surges that harm equipment or even workers.

But critics in the solar industry say HECO’s new restrictions on solar are ruining a thriving market at the busiest time of year and leaving hundreds of solar customers in limbo.

Amid the solar squabbles, HECO vice president Scott Seu wrote in a Tuesday Community Voice that the utility has been working to provide more customers with access to solar while still ensuring safety and reliability.

And he suggests that the majority of Oahu customers aren’t currently at risk of having to pay extra to have their system installed. After all, a majority of HECO’s 416 circuits aren’t at the solar tipping point.

“Although more than 80 percent of circuits on Oahu have room for more solar without the need for detailed safety and reliability studies, we’ve now reached the point on others where the levels of solar require our utilities and the solar companies to be more cautious,” Seu writes.

Civil Beat asked HECO to clarify the statement.

“The point is that there are many areas where there is room for more solar with little or no chance that studies and upgrades will be needed for now,” HECO spokesman Peter Rosegg said in an email.

But HECO’s online map showing levels of solar penetration throughout Oahu paints a very different picture.

Many residential neighborhoods where single-family homes dominate and solar is most practical — like Mililani, Ewa and Hawaii Kai — have already reached HECO’s penetration level for triggering studies. Meanwhile, neighborhoods full of high-rises that are not very conducive to solar, like Waikiki and downtown Honolulu, have low solar penetration. And as Seu conceded during a legislative hearing last week, a portion of the circuits that fall within the 80 percent figure are in industrial areas.

“We know that certain areas may be very industrial in nature, so those circuits are not necessarily what we would consider to be available to many of our PV contractors to target new projects,” he said.

HECO’s map shows solar penetration levels throughout Oahu. Areas that are the darkest shade of blue have hit the utility’s circuit threshold — meaning residents may have to pay for grid upgrades in order to connect a solar system.

Customers on circuits where solar has reached 100% or more of the daytime minimum load could face additional costs to install solar.

So how many potential solar customers could be facing extra costs or delays? Rosegg said the utility can’t say.

He is sticking with Seu’s 80 percent figure and says it is accurate.

“Scott did not say that all circuits are ‘equal,’ nor would anyone familiar with the grid believe them to be,” he wrote. “As I think you know, every circuit is different. Some are entirely residential, some entirely commercial, some a mix of the two in different percentages. Sizes and configurations and equipment already in place vary as well.”

But HECO’s map shows that it’s likely that significantly more than 20 percent of customers in residential areas will affected.

Bottom line: While it may be technically true that 80 percent of HECO’s total circuits are below the threshold that triggers studies and grid upgrades, Seu’s statement is misleading. HECO’s own map shows that large areas where solar is practical are already hitting HECO’s new circuit threshold, meaning that new solar in those areas could face delays and perhaps additional costs. Civil Beat finds the statement to be HALF TRUE.

DISCUSSION: *Do you think HECO has done a good job keeping solar customers informed about potential costs and delays in installing a solar system?

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