So you’ve finally made the switch to solar and are free from Hawaii’s sky-high electricity rates.

If you’re lucky, you now pay only a small monthly fee to Hawaiian Electric Co. for allowing you to keep your solar system hooked up to their electric grids on Oahu, the Big Island or Maui County. The grids act as battery storage for your solar system and allow you to draw electricity from HECO when the sun isn’t shining, while you feed excess solar energy back into the grid during the day.

But is your solar system driving up costs for the rest of Hawaii’s electric customers?

HECO says it is. The utility says it’s time to talk about whether solar system owners need to pay the utility more to help cover its operating costs.

“Today, the costs are not fairly allocated to all customers,” said Scott Seu, HECO’s vice president for energy resources and operations, during the final meeting of a 68-member community advisory group convened to assist the utility in coming up with long-term energy plans.

As more people switch to solar to escape electricity rates that are three times the national average, the rest of HECO’s customers could see their rates go up, the utility says. That’s because there will be fewer ratepayers left on the grid to cover HECO’s fixed costs.

“People are opting out of escalating rates,” said Seu. “It is mostly people that can afford to opt out. So you have a situation where the people who are stranded are going to be increasingly burdened with carrying the (utility’s costs).”

But many solar industry and environmental advocates have never bought that line of reasoning.

Mark Duda, a principal at Honolulu-based RevoluSun, said that there’s no evidence to support the claim.

“This is an empirical question and the way you answer this question is not just by asserting these people are screwing these people and conversely, not by saying everything is just fine — you have to actually study it,” he said.

Isaac Moriwake, an attorney with Earthjustice, and a member of the energy advisory group, said switching to solar reduces the utility’s overall fuel and transmission costs, which can ultimately reduce rates for the rest of customers.

He said HECO needs to move away from a business model where it generates the power and distributes it over a transmission system it owns. The utility needs to find a way for other power generators — like individual rooftop solar — to fit more easily into the overall energy picture.

“For a utility stuck on that antiquated business model, rooftop solar is a threat, especially in a utility regulatory model where they get profits out of how much stuff they build,” said Moriwake.

Seu said that HECO doesn’t have the authority to raise fees for solar customers. That’s something that would have to be picked up by the Legislature and Public Utilities Commission. But he said that it’s a discussion that needs to happen.

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