Clean Power

Published on February 6th, 2014 | by Guest Contributor


Hawaii May Be A Test Case For Solar Grid Penetration

February 6th, 2014 by  

Originally published on PVSolarReport.
By Rosana Francescato.

Will Solar in Hawaii Be a Test Case for High Grid Penetration? Credit: Solar Energy Industries Association

While Hawaii continues to be a top solar state, residential PV installations have slowed down. As utilities and solar advocates face off about the real state of solar in the state, the rest of the country watches to see how the high grid penetration of solar in Hawaii will be resolved.

What’s going on with solar in Hawaii?

The Hawaii solar market has been strong enough to put it at #7 on the list of top 10 solar states. It was propelled there by very high power prices, plus a hefty state tax credit.

Last week, Hawaiian Electric Companies (HECO) issued a press release titled “Rooftop PV enjoys another strong year in Hawaii.” While the release started out sounding as celebratory as its title suggested, proclaiming the “unprecedented rapid growth in rooftop solar” in the state, it finished by warning of the dangers to the grid of so much solar.

Last year, Greentech Media reported on this issue. At the time, HECO claimed that the high grid penetration of solar was causing problems by producing 100% of daytime load on circuits. (A National Renewable Energy Laboratory report last year found that the Hawaii grid can handle solar penetration of 20%.) Because of these issues, HECO started charging $500 for solar permits, in addition to requiring approvals for each installation.

HECO acknowledged in their press release that this situation led to a slowdown of solar in Hawaii late last year.

So far in January, Oahu, where most of this solar has been concentrated, has experienced a 30% drop in residential PV permits, compared to the same period last year. Another report had Honolulu residential PV permits down 16% last week from the same week in 2013.

Solar advocates are not happy with HECO’s press release, and say the utility is not owning up to the true state of the industry, which has “hit a wall.”

That doesn’t mean solar has ground to a halt in the state. Just yesterday, SolarCity issued a press release announcing a partnership with a Hawaii homebuilder to provide solar on homes at little or no upfront cost to buyers. The solar installer has been forming a number of such partnerships lately, and says this one represents the first time a neighborhood in Hawaii will provide solar panels as an included feature on some new homes. So they must see some potential remaining in the market.

But for most homeowners, going solar in Hawaii has doubtless become more difficult.

The situation in the state is being watched closely. I’ve heard it used on more than one occasion as a prime example of the problems caused when too much distributed solar comes into the grid.

GTM quoted their own Cory Honeyman as saying, “Hawaii’s market represents the looming (but far out) challenge to come for all established state markets: increasingly unmanageable PV grid saturation levels.”

While it’s tempting to say that utilities are acting simply out of concern that their profits might shrink, the technical issue is real. GreenBiz quoted another GTM analyst, MJ Shiao, who said, “You can see where there is an incentive for the utility to hide behind technical issues, but in theory, what they are saying is sound and there are technical issues that need to be dealt with.”

In the face of these issues, some are asking: Is it solar that’s the problem? Or is it our old, unreliable grid system?

Whichever side you find yourself on in answering that question, the fact remains that something’s gotta give. Hawaii’s amazing solar success is the very thing that’s now causing its solar slowdown. To keep solar vital and growing, we’ll need to find solutions to the grid penetration issue.

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  • Ronald Brakels

    Wait a minute! I just read that 9% of people in Hawaii have rooftop solar. Here in South Australia we have more than twice that many and we’re fine and installing more. Now I realize that the situations of the two places are not identical, but still something smells fishy and I don’t think it’s the poke. (Well, of course the poke smells fishy, it’s got raw fish in it. But I mean, something smells fishy in addition to the poke.)

    • just_jim

      Part of the answer is protection of profits. Hawaii’s electricity rates are the highest in the nation, and it is one of the most favorable areas in the nation for solar. The for-profit utilities see the writing on the wall if something isn’t done. OTOH, the customer owned Kauai electric (KIUC) is planning to increase it’s share of renewably generated electricity to 50%, and is currently offering a $1,000 rebate for installing solar water heating, so at least one utility has no problems with solar.

      Aside from that, the situations are very different. What if Sydney had to get all of its electricity from within 20 miles? One cloud-bank could knock out PV for the city. That’s approximately the situation in Hawaii, where there are no hook ups between the major islands. In addition, it’s very possible that a smaller proportion of the usage is for a/c (power needed at the same time that solar pv output is highest.)

      • Ronald Brakels

        If Sydney had to get all its electricity from within 20 miles it would build enough solar PV to meet its entire daytime demand as that would be the cheapest option. A great many offshore wind turbines would also be built. There would be a lot of demand management and a significant amount of energy storage. Just what type of energy storage would depend on costs and incentives but Australia is a very promising place for home and business energy storage. Rubbish incineration and biomass could also play a role, as could coal as there is coal under Sydney, but it may not be worth extracting it due to the low cost of solar and wind and the decreasing cost of energy storage.

  • just_jim

    Interestingly in the county of Kauai, renewable electricity has a higher penetration than in the rest of Hawaii, yet the local utility seems to have no problems with it.

    In fact on the front page of its website it says: “KIUC is aggressively pursuing diversification of its energy portfolio to include a growing percentage of hydropower, photovoltaic, bio-fuel, and biomass.”

    The only difference seems to be that the Kauai utility is a cooperative.

    • Doug

      It seems that the grid infrastructure in Hawaii is very poor. Who’s fault is that?

      • just_jim

        I’m not sure that the grid infrastructure is poor. It is being used as an excuse by the for-profit electric utilities for not allowing rooftop solar, but that’s not the same thing.

        • Doug

          I checked a few technical reports and the island of Hawaii does seem to have grid issues. It’s both an excuse and inexcusable at the same time

          • just_jim

            You said the island of Hawaii. You are aware that the island is just a small part of the State of Hawaii aren’t you?

            That said, the monopoly that supplies electricity to the island of Oahu also seems to have grid issues.

            I’d say that it’s a case of both the utility being inexcusably short sighted, and the regulatory commission being inexcusably lax.

          • Doug

            Please Jim. That is obvious – which is why I stated “Island” of Hawaii. The grid issues on the other islands are less critical.

          • just_jim

            Since Cleantech has an international audience, I didn’t assume that non US readers would know the distinction.

  • Tam Hunt

    Battery storage is the obvious solution, but cost is the hurdle to get over. If HELCO and HECO can convince the HPUC to support a pilot grid storage initiative like recently adopted in CA we could make relatively quick progress on this issue. Batteries could absorb excess solar power on distribution circuits and send it back into the grid at night. This will allow the predominant diesel-powered generation to be turned down, reducing emissions and costs. CA’s storage 1.3 gigawatt storage initiative was adopted with a cost-effectiveness requirement and Hawaii could do the same to ensure that ratepayers aren’t left with a huge bill. It’s important, however, in determining cost-effectiveness to fully value the benefits of grid storage to the grid.

  • spec9

    Germany is the real test case. But Hawaii is our Germany so it is our local state that has to deal with a huge amount of solar. I hope they can learn from Germany.

  • Tom Terrific

    HECO is a privately-owned monopoly that has gouged Hawaii residents for a century. Sun-generated power cuts into their profits. Pretty simple to see the conflict of interest here.

    • spec9

      Taking a completely one-sided view is not productive. Imagine what would happen if HECO declared bankruptcy and turned everything off . . . most of the solar systems would fail to as they are grid-tied. Of course that is not going to happen but HECO is a partner/rival but not an enemy.

      • just_jim

        If HECO declared bankruptcy the company that bought up HECO’s assets would probably do a better job for the residents.

      • Doug

        Perhaps bankruptcy is the best option for HECO. This may allow a more enlightened owner to offer superior services at lower prices. The lights will not go out – that’s a scare tactic.

  • mike_dyke

    I think I can see the utilities/grid problem…
    In the traditional set up, power was generated in a few places and then distributed to the consumer, so the grid is designed to be stronger around the power stations and weaker around the consumer’s area.
    Solar turns that around and puts the generation of power at the consumer’s end and reduces it at the power station end. As a result, the consumer’s end needs strengthening.
    This sound like a case for putting in micro-grids doesn’t it?
    The problem is – Who’s going to pay for this?

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