Dorothy: I don’t like this forest!  It’s dark and creepy!

Scarecrow: Of course, I don’t know, but I think it’ll get darker before it gets lighter.

This exchange from the Wizard of Oz encapsulates the current solar power climate on Oahu.

From local and out-of-state companies to legislators to Hawaii-based and mainland advocacy groups to disempowered home and business owners, there’s been a mass outpouring of dark and creepy discontent directed toward Hawaiian Electric due to thousands of utility customers not being able to go solar electric when they want to.

solar panels with sunset

ProVision Solar

And some of the rhetoric has been quite rich.

HECO has been called a “slumlord” that operates akin to the stagnating Soviet Union of the early 1980s, putting out proposals that were “dead on arrival.”

It has also been called a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” that is allegedly doing everything in the company’s power to thwart the will of those seeking to go PV.

Some elected officials are so unhappy that there’s even been discussion of a public takeover of the utility, as if that would miraculously open up the electric grid to any and all comers and lower electric rates.

And, yes, indeed, Dorothy, it’s more likely than not that things will get even darker before they get lighter.

The Demolitionists … excoriate Hawaiian Electric for not having had the prescience years ago to know that PV capacity was going to double or more every year since 2006, and create an infrastructure that would know no practical limits for years to come.

Surveying the cast of characters in this solar drama that’s roiling the energy waters, it’s possible to identify three camps: the Demolitionists, the Dreamers and the Pragmatists.

The Demolitionists seem make the most noise and get the most attention. Reporters like them because they offer the juiciest sound bites and quotes, whether they agree to go on the record or remain anonymous.

The Demolitionists essentially seek the overthrow of the existing regime, which consists of Hawaiian Electric and its affiliate utilities. They talk of HECO needing to completely revamp its business model and of removing any and all impediments to installing and interconnecting an unlimited number of PV systems to the grid.

They excoriate Hawaiian Electric for not having had the prescience years ago to know that PV capacity was going to double or more every year since 2006, and create an infrastructure that would know no practical limits for years to come.

The Demolitionists feel a deep sense of anger and frustration and show no interest in allowing the cumbersome and lengthy regulatory process to play out. They’re mad as hell and they don’t want to take it anymore.

The Dreamers believe that where there’s an adequate will, there’s a way. This camp believes, as a recent memo by the Renewable Energy Action Coalition of Hawaii states, that, “Once the people of Hawaii make up their collective mind that 100 percent renewable energy is what they want, the creative energies and enthusiasm of the people in Hawaii can align with how to achieve it, and its achievement will become inevitable.”

And how is Hawaiian Electric convinced to get on board? We, the people, ask them.

“Asking the ‘what do you want?’ question gives the utilities the opportunity to convince themselves that they want 100 percent renewable energy, and that they want to plan for 100 percent renewable energy, to ensure their future prosperity and business success.”  (Italics are in the original REACH document.)

If enough people ask, according to the Dreamers, we will get to the Promised Land. There, all technological and practical challenges and obstacles to incorporating as much PV as we want will be solved, and an Aloha State 100 percent-powered by renewable energy will become a reality.

The Pragmatists fall somewhere in between the Demolitionists and Dreamers. Neither boiling with anger, nor bubbly with hope, Pragmatists see a way forward through the realization that the PV halcyon days of 2012-2013 will not return soon, if ever.

This group sees the name-calling and vitriol from the Demolitionists as counter-productive, and the laudable path to get to 100 percent renewable as practically impossible in our lifetimes. They acknowledge that it’s likely to be a long, hard slog to substantially increase PV capacity on the grid and that progress is likely to be slow and frustrating.

But, the Pragmatists assert, there’s no option other than to allow grid modernization — which refers to a smart grid and energy storage — to evolve and the regulatory process to play out.

While this camp is far from satisfied with the growing number of circuits effectively closed to adding more PV capacity, there’s something of an accepted resignation of the current situation. They believe that browbeating the utility, writing letters to elected officials and the PUC or marching in the streets is not likely to yield positive results.

The interaction between these three camps, and other interested parties and stakeholders, in the months and years to come promises to be quite the spectacle as Hawaii’s energy future is debated.

But this debate has been going on in the state for 40 or more years. What’s different now is that residents who want to go PV can’t, at least not as soon as they’d like to.

And a once-booming construction trade that has been doing its part to increase energy independence is being hammered.

And after years of admirable progress in allowing an impressive number of households to have their own mini power plants installed on their roofs, there’s a growing feeling of uncertainty and anxiety in the industry that our best days are behind us.

If only there were some wizard behind the curtain who could miraculously work the switches and levers with accompanying smoke, lightning and thunder, and transform the grid we have now into a more akamai grid of the future with storage galore and the brains to make it all work.

Finally, for reference sake, the term “smart grid” can mean many things to many people. The best definition that I have found is the following: A smart grid is an intelligent electrical network with two-way flow of energy and real-time information between power generation,  grid operators and consumers.

Its three level architecture includes: traditional grid equipment (substations, lines, etc.) to transmit electricity at low, medium and high voltage; automated systems that interconnect renewable energy sources, storage solutions; and consumers to manage the flow of electricity across the grid and control centers using software solutions to manage transactions, balance supply and demand and interconnect all networks.

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About the Author

  • Marco Mangelsdorf
    Marco Mangelsdorf has been in the renewable energy field for nearly four decades years and is president of ProVision Solar, a Hilo-based solar company designing and installing PV projects across the islands since 2000. He has taught energy politics at UH Hilo and the University of California and is a director and secretary of the Hawaii Island Energy Cooperative which seeks to convert the Big Island's electric utility to a coop.