A bitter clash over the future of subsidies for rooftop solar systems is pitting former political allies against each other in an emerging public battle.

On one side is The Alliance for Solar Choice, an industry group of large national solar companies that has been spearheading a public relations campaign aimed at blocking moves to reduce or eliminate subsidies that have fueled an exponential growth in rooftop solar systems over the past several years.

The group has positioned itself as the champion of the “right” of homeowners to connect their rooftop photovoltaic systems to the electrical grid with a minimum of restrictions, and with continued subsidies from the utility — and from the public through tax credits. The group’s visibility recently jumped when it sponsored a broad media campaign that accused Hawaiian Electric of trying to “tax the sun” by proposing reductions in the price paid for excess power that rooftop systems feed back into the grid.

PUC Commissioner Hermina Morita at the Ascent Building a Secure and Sustainable Water and Energy Future for Hawaii Conference at UH Manoa. 4.15.14

PUC Commissioner Mina Morita, center, at a conference last year. A former darling of environmentalists, she’s now locked in a debate with supporters of rooftop solar energy.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

And on the other side, facing off against TASC, is Mina Morita, a soft-spoken former seven-term legislator who stepped down as chair of the Public Utilities Commission at the beginning of this year after four years in that position. She was appointed to the PUC by then-Gov. Neil Abercrobie in early 2011.

In February, just weeks after leaving the PUC, Morita began publishing a blog she calls  “Energy Dynamics” from her home on Kauai.

In a blog post last week, Morita called TASC’s “taxing the sun” campaign deceptive, and said taxpayers, and the majority of utility customers who don’t have rooftop solar systems, will end up getting “fleeced” by the deception.

Morita accuses the solar advocates of politicizing energy policy at a very delicate time in which rapid technological change, coupled with dramatic changes in energy pricing, have ratcheted up the risks for Hawaii’s utilities and the public in making decisions that will reverberate for decades.

“These kinds of decisions cannot be political decisions,” Morita said, “because this is  a central service that the whole economy depends on, and we can’t afford major failure of this important infrastructure.”

“We’re in a precarious situation here,” she said. “I hate the cliches, but failure is not an option.”

Not Your Everyday Foes

What’s most dramatic about this face-off is the turnabout it represents from the relationship between the two sides just a few years ago. While in the Legislature, Morita was strongly supported by environmentalists, conservationists and those pressing for expanded reliance on renewable energy sources. She was consistently ranked highly by the Sierra Club for her environmental positions, and regulary received the group’s endorsement come campaign season.

As chair of the House Committee on Energy and Environmental Protection, Morita supported legislation establishing Net Energy Metering, which allowed homeowners with rooftop solar systems to be compensated for the excess electricity generated that was sent to the grid.

“You have a lot of people out there advocating for self interest.” — Mina Morita

The former director of the Sierra Club’s Hawaii Chapter, environmental attorney Robert Harris, is now Public Policy Director for Sunrun, one of the major national companies that make up the Alliance for Solar Choice. Harris has headed up the “don’t tax the sun” campaign in Hawaii and has been its public face.

Morita’s recent blog post that challenged TASC called out Harris by name.

“Ahana Koko Lele — Shame on You!” Morita wrote.

In fact, according to Morita, the tax issue cited by the ad campaign does not apply to the way these payments are treated in Hawaii. So the whole “tax” issue is both incorrect and intentionally misleading.

Some former friends might be tempted to dismiss Morita’s shift in position as evidence that she has sold out to the energy corporations.

But after speaking with her at some length in a telephone interview this week, I think that would be a big mistake.

Important and Complex Issues

“I know I took a risk writing the last blog,” Morita said in a telephone interview Tuesday, “but I didn’t know of any other way to get the attention of the public, and sort of put those players in their place.”

“They’re not helping to solve the huge issue,” Morita said, referring to TASC and its member companies, “and are playing right into the hands of this whole ‘utility vs PV’ debate that’s going on on the mainland, and it’s ugly, it’s really ugly.”

Morita spelled out several issues.

First, she said, the solar companies have captured the imagination of the public by presenting rooftop solar as the democratization of power, with the power of the sun available to everyone and promising freedom from the big utilities.

“At one point, I thought that was true,” Morita said.

“When we adopted net metering, it was the early adoption of a policy that needed to be incentivized,” she said. The different forms of subsidies for rooftop photovoltaic systems provided that incentive, whether in the form of tax credits from federal and state governments, or the net meter purchases by the utility.

solar panels/ home rooftop

Rooftop solar will fetch a much-lower price if a recent HECO proposal is approved.

Jon Callas/Flickr.com

But two things have happened. The number of rooftop solar systems has increased exponentially in the past few years, in large part due to the substantial subsidies.

And we’re now pushing up against the limits of the grid’s ability to absorb the energy produced by rooftop solar during the daytime hours when the sun is shining and the highest amount of power is being produced.

“We’re now facing the fact that we have a finite grid that can only take so much rooftop solar, and we’re facing an excess energy situation where we have too much generation from the rooftop systems,” she said.

Currently, the utility doesn’t have the ability to control the amount of rooftop solar being fed back into the grid, although future upgrades could make that feasible.

“HECO has a real technical challenge,” Morita said. “Because they can’t control the amount of rooftop solar feeding into the grid, they have to work with the sources they can control, the utility-scale wind and solar, and their own generators, and make adjustments there.”

The problem is that HECO usually pays less for power from those sources than it pays for the rooftop solar.

Despite a public perception that rooftop solar systems, powered by the sun, must be the least expensive form of power, that isn’t the case, Morita said.

“It is cheapest for the individual homeowner because of the subsidization, but it’s not cheaper for the system.”

And here’s the other big problem. Earlier this year, HECO said that about 12 percent of its customers now have rooftop solar systems, compared to a national average of about 1 percent.

Even if the utility achieves its goal of tripling the amount of distributed solar power in the next 15 years, the majority of its customers will still rely on the utility for their electricity.

So while those who have rooftop solar have benefited from the cost savings, in part due to the heavy subsidies that have been provided, those benefits haven’t been shared by the majority of HECO customers.

‘The Window is Closing for Solar’

Morita announces rather matter of factly that solar’s time is running out.

“The window is closing for solar because of this finite grid situation,” she says, “unless we can increase the demand during the day to use up all the power that’s being generated through solar, or unless storage pricing drops, where bulk storage becomes more affordable.”

It doesn’t matter whether the solar systems are on the roofs of homes, or part of large, industrial size installations. Using existing technology, the grid can only absorb so much from these sources.

In terms of accomodating rooftop solar installations, “we’re beyond the bleeding edge,” Morita said.  “We’re so far ahead of the curve, we’re not adopting best practices, we’re developing the next set of practices.”

“We’re in a precarious situation here,” she says, letting a few seconds of silence underscore her point.

In Morita’s view, several further factors contribute to the dangers of the current energy situation.

Despite a public perception that rooftop solar systems, powered by the sun, must be the least expensive form of power, that isn’t the case, Morita said.

First, technology is developing rapidly, and power prices are, if anything, changing even more rapidly. She pointed to power purchase contracts signed by utilities on the mainland where prices paid have dropped by two-thirds within a year or two.

Both falling costs and the pace of technological change appear to promise a way to achieve things in the intermediate future that can’t be done with today’s technology or at an affordable price.

But there’s the rub.

“We’re going to have to make some major investments in assets that are long-lived,” she said, referring to the types of utility infrastructure with a useful life of 25 years, perhaps as long as 50 years. “When you’re talking about a 20-year contract, or longer, you don’t want to commit yourself too early when there’s this kind of pricing uncertainty involved.”

“You don’t want to jump the gun too quickly, and make an expensive investment in the latest technology that proves to be quickly outdated, and end up getting stuck with these stranded assets.”

“We’re at a point where this transition has to be carefully managed, because if we rush into it without thinking through the system issues, we actually may be making it harder to reach the goal of 100 percent renewables in the future,” she said.

There’s no question that HECO needed a kick in the butt to get it out of its historic rut and moving toward a new energy future.

“But on the other hand, you have a lot of people out there advocating for self interest,” she said, pointing to the big solar companies that make up the Alliance for Solar Choice.

These companies typically finance the solar systems they install, making them available to  homeowners who can’t or don’t want to make the up-front investment themselves. Homeowners then sign a long-term contract, typically for 20 years, to buy their power from the solar company at a set rate that usually increases over the term of the contract.

To make this work, the companies rely on high electricity prices, along with high subsidies from the utilities and from taxpayers.

So it is obviously in their interests to fight against anything that reduces those subsidies and they resorting too often, Morita wrote recently, to the use of “hyperbole, exaggeration and self-interested fear-mongering.“

There are  a lot of moving parts that have to come together for us to move forward in a way that benefits everyone, and not just the relative few who have, or will have, rooftop solar. Politicizing the decisions by trying to end-run the PUC’s deliberative processes will only make things both more complicated and more difficult, in her view.

“It’s all a very delicate dance here,” Morita said. That was the understatement that ended our interview.

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About the Author

  • Ian Lind
    Ian Lind is an award-winning investigative reporter and columnist who has been blogging daily for more than 20 years. He has also worked as a newsletter publisher, public interest advocate and lobbyist for Common Cause in Hawaii, peace educator, and legislative staffer. Lind is a lifelong resident of the islands. Read his blog here. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.