We appreciate Ian Lind’s recent Civil Beat story discussing Hawaii’s visionary energy goals and the potential role of solar power. But the story risks leaving an erroneous impression that the conversation has become one-sided — with anti-solar voices drowning out the other 92 percent of the local public, who think solar power is a good idea for Hawaii.

This drift toward a one-sided debate may have been pushed over the edge when Hawaiian Electric recently tried to expel a vocal solar advocacy group (The Alliance for Solar Choice) from a PUC docket that is examining the future of rooftop solar power in Hawaii.

This is a complex topic involving social, economic, and engineering issues. We need to make sure all sides are heard and that we’re making thoughtful decisions based on all the facts. An effective debate doesn’t involve kicking out others who disagree with you.

Blue Planet solar photo

Solar panels on a Waikiki rooftop.

Blue Planet Foundation

If the story had described a more balanced conversation, here’s what else we might have heard:

Hawaii has enjoyed phenomenal success with solar power. Millions of gallons of oil have been saved, and — at certain times — an estimated 20 percent to 35 percent of our electricity is coming from the sun. More than 50,000 rooftops around the state have become energy generators, vying with centralized wind power to lead the way on clean energy.

If we keep adding renewable power at the recent pace, Hawaii will be on track to meet its 100 percent clean energy target. These steps should be regarded as astounding progress.

Critics allege that solar customers don’t pay their fair share. This argument is not unique to Hawaii. These discussions cropped up when the Edison Electric Institute (a utility trade organization) published a strategy paper in 2013 highlighting rooftop solar as a key disruption facing the traditional utility business model. A recent Washington Post article reported on how the Edison Electric Institute “playbook” is being used by utilities across the country in attempts to raise fees on solar customers.

Attacks on rooftop solar and net energy metering have been launched in over 30 states. Anti-solar crusaders like the conservative think tank American Legislative Exchange Council have identified net energy metering as a primary target. The Los Angeles Times reported that ALEC and other groups with financial ties to the fossil fuel billionaire Koch brothers have launched efforts to repeal clean energy policies in states around the country.

So where does this national debate stand? Non-utility funded studies in at least nine states have concluded that solar customers pay more than their fair share of grid costs. No state has eliminated net energy metering. Rooftop solar and other clean energy sources are as popular as ever.

President Obama just announced the first-ever national standards to fight climate change by limiting carbon pollution from power plants. He also announced a community solar partnership to scale up solar access across the country. Yet sadly, the International Monetary Fund reported this year that the U.S. continues to provide vast subsidies for oil, coal, and natural gas, totaling $2177 per citizen per year (roughly the same amount as defense spending).

Viewed against this national backdrop, Hawaii is both ahead of the game and behind the ball. We are ahead of the game because, while the Koch brothers were attacking clean energy targets in other states, our Legislature was hard at work setting a target for 100 percent renewable power in Hawaii. Our PUC recently approved four solar farms that will boost the amount of solar power on Oahu by nearly 65 percent. And Hawaiian Electric should be applauded for looking ahead and clearing the path for those large solar facilities.

Viewed against a national backdrop, Hawaii is both ahead of the game and behind the ball.

Unfortunately, when it comes to contributing facts to the rooftop solar debate, we are falling behind. Hawaiian Electric and solar critics frequently cite an in-house utility report as “proof” that solar power is shifting millions in costs to non-solar customers.

But here’s an inconvenient truth — we don’t know of any other utility that uses Hawaiian Electric’s method of estimating this “cost-shift.” Hawaiian Electric has admitted that its method estimates the cost of solar power, but doesn’t add up all the benefits. That’s like balancing a checkbook by looking at the checks you write, but ignoring the checks you deposit.

Hawaiian Electric’s methodology has big problems. It focuses on the amount of power sold — less is bad, more is good. Applying the same method to energy efficiency, we would conclude that efficiency causes an unfair “cost-shift” to the tune of hundreds of millions dollars.

We can all agree that it makes sense not to waste energy, so nobody is saying that energy efficiency is a bad thing. Rather, we are illustrating how far astray this “cost-shift” rhetoric could lead us.

The central truth is that Hawaii is wrestling with complicated energy problems spurred by years of over-reliance on oil. We need a thoughtful approach, and we can’t ignore lessons being learned in other places. If we start now, we can more quickly use smart strategies like time-of-use electricity rates, which will help match solar power with electricity demand.

We can set the stage for storing excess solar power, and then using it at night. We can make sure that the rooftop solar industry continues to build a competitive backstop for electric customers, and spurs innovation in the utility business model to help provide lower costs and better service for everyone.

We should also work together on a thorough study to determine how to price solar power based on the actual costs and benefits, before we believe too much anti-solar hype. Customers should pay for their share of a modern grid – no question.

But with multiple studies across the country finding that solar customers are paying a fair share, customers deserve all the facts. This debate will undoubtedly be more constructive with multiple voices.

Note on the application of Hawaiian Electric’s “lost contributions to fixed costs” methodology to energy efficiency: Hawaii Energy reports the total expenditures and anticipated benefits from its energy efficiency program. These results show that, from 2009-2013, energy efficiency programs were a net benefit to the state as a whole: the program cost was $108 million, but produced approximately $2 billion in lifetime anticipated electric bill savings. However, using HECO’s methodology for calculating ratepayer impacts, we would conclude that the program has already “shifted costs” to non-participants by up to $184 million ($76 million in “lost contributions to fixed costs” and $108 million in program costs). Over the lifetime of those efficiency measures, the total anticipated “cost-shift” would be on the order of $840 million ($732 million in lifetime “lost contributions to fixed costs” and $108 million in program costs).

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Columns generally run about 800 words (yes, they can be shorter or longer) and we need a photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to news@civilbeat.com.

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