Hawaiian Electric Co. executives weathered intense criticism Friday during a three-hour legislative briefing at the State Capitol called to assess the state of Hawaii’s troubled solar industry

HECO vice presidents Jim Alberts and Colton Ching struggled to satisfy legislators’ questions about the sharp decline in solar on Oahu, in particular, and what the electric utility is doing to mitigate problems in connecting more solar photovoltaic systems to its electric grid.

The installation of solar systems has plummeted since HECO implemented new rules last September requiring Oahu customers to get utility approval before putting solar panels on their roofs. Comparing August 2013 to last month, there was a two-thirds reduction in the number of solar permits issued on the island, according to state permitting data. 

energy briefing _ solar

From left, HECO vice presidents Colton Ching and Jim Alberts brief lawmakers, along with solar advocates, Kevin Fox, Mark Duda and Leslie Cole-Brooks.

Sophie Cocke/ Civil Beat

HECO has said that the policy is necessary to maintain the stability of its electric grid, prevent power outages from all of the intermittent solar power on its circuits and keep utility workers safe. 

Critics, including lawmakers Friday, said that the the utility should have planned for the rapid rise in solar and upgraded its grids to avoid these problems. Indeed, solar executives and renewable energy advocates have been clamoring for HECO to upgrade to smart grid technology for at least four years. 

“I’m just happy the utility is not involved in cell phone technology, or we would still be carrying a brick,” said Sen. Sam Slom.

The briefing included senators from the Energy and Environment Committee and Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee, as well as representatives from the Energy and Environmental Protection Committee and Consumer Protection and Commerce Committee.

Representatives from the Hawaii PV Coalition, the Hawaii Solar Energy Association, The Alliance for Solar Choice and HECO gave presentations before taking questions from lawmakers.

Customer Service: A Soviet Union Comparison

On Oahu, about half of skilled workers in the solar industry have been laid off in the past year because of HECO’s grid constraints, according to an estimate from the Hawaii Solar Energy Association.

While solar sales continue to decline, frustrating solar companies, many eager solar customers have expressed equal consternation. Currently, there is a backlog of about 4,500 solar applications awaiting HECO approval, according to the utility. 

“If you are a utility customer and you want solar, you almost certainly have experienced delays, inadequate communication, various missed deadlines, and a generalized level of responsiveness to customer concerns that would probably have embarrassed Brezhnev’s Soviet Union,” Mark Duda, head of the Hawaii PV Coalition, told lawmakers. Duda is also a principal at Distributed Energy Partners, a Honolulu-based solar energy company. 

Leonid Brezhnev, who ruled the Soviet Union from 1964 to 1982, is known for economic policies that led to the so-called Era of Stagnation. 

“From the perspective of the solar industry, the last year has been a series of depressing layoffs of friends and colleagues, repeated conversations with disappointed, angry and upset customers and generalized wealth destruction,” Duda continued. 

A crowd comprised almost entirely of disgruntled employees of the solar industry and solar customers, who had squeezed into the hearing room, clapped as Duda finished his testimony. 

Alberts and Ching appeared unruffled. 

‘Who is going to make sure Roscoe the Rottweiler is tied up?’

The HECO executives took turns trying to assure lawmakers that the utility was dedicated to advancing renewable energy and serving its customers. They noted that their new energy plans, recently filed with the Public Utilities Commission, include goals of achieving more than 65 percent renewable energy by 2030, tripling the amount of solar and reducing consumer electricity rates by 20 percent. 

More immediately, the utility’s strategy for increasing solar on its grids includes changing the frequency of the majority of inverters on currently installed solar systems, upgrading solar voltage technology and raising the safety threshold for the amount of solar allowed on its circuits from 120 percent percent to 150 percent. 

The changes should allow roughly 2,800 customers to connect their solar systems to the Oahu grid, said Alberts. 

But Leslie Cole-Brooks, executive director of the Hawaii Solar Energy Association, testified that the plan to switch out inverters could cause major problems for the solar industry and the piecemeal approach to the problem suggested that HECO has failed to plan ahead. 

“There appears to be no Plan B and this is an enormous logistical undertaking and we are very, very concerned about how it is we are going to move forward,” she said. 

It could take until the middle of 2016 for workers to switch out the inverters of about 20,000 customers at a cost of $10 million, said Cole-Brooks, adding that it wasn’t clear who would coordinate the work. In some cases, she said workers would have to  climb up on people’s roofs and manually change the inverter frequencies. 

“Where is the administration? Who is going to do it? Who is going to make the phone calls? Who is going to make sure Roscoe the Rottweiler is tied up?” she said. “Who is going to show up and climb up on the roof? Explain to the homeowners this is what we are trying to do?”

Alberts told Civil Beat after the hearing that he thought the whole process of changing out the inverters could take less than a year — about half of them could be done remotely. The utility sent out letters to solar contractors this week asking for their help. 

Beyond HECO’s struggles with solar, many say the utility is facing a more fundamental problem — whether it can survive in a rapidly changing market that includes advances in technology that could render its traditional business model obsolete. 

For instance, advances in battery storage could allow increasing numbers of utility customers to completely disconnect from HECO’s electric grids, eroding the utility’s customer base. Currently, the majority of solar customers use the grids for backup power and energy storage. 

Duda said that the payback period for off-grid solar with battery storage is expected to decline from 11 years in 2015 to six years in 2025. 

Rep. Chris Lee, who chairs the House Energy and Environmental Protection Committee, said that most of the challenges when it comes to renewable energy will ultimately be solved by the market, not government policies, raising the question of whether HECO will even remain in business in the coming years. 

“The question moving forward . . . is what is the benefit of a privately-owned utility?” said Lee. “Wouldn’t Hawaii’s ratepayers in this context be better served by a public utility that only looks out for the public interest in cleaner energy and lower prices rather than a utility also trying to make a signifiant profit off of those captive ratepayers?”

Alberts responded that HECO is “very community-focused.”

“That is why we plan to get to 65 percent renewable energy and lower bills by 20 percent,” he said. 

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