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HECO endangering itself by foot-dragging on solar power

“Solar on every roof” has been my message to the people of Hawaii for the past eight years.

Going forward, it may be “solar on every roof — and storage batteries under every house.”

Earlier this year, I compared Hawaii’s electrical grid to an old-fashioned mainframe computer system — a system that has not kept up with the development of stand-alone personal computers and devices. Our state continues to rely on a centralized power plant to distribute power across the electrical grid. In the meantime, we continue to waste the sun for the sake of an outdated paradigm focusing on the producer rather than the end-user.

This “micro-grid” paradigm is evolving as the new reality even as Hawaiian Electric Co. continues to drag its feet for advancement of larger quantities of renewable energy from rooftop solar that has been vastly improved and more cost-effective.

Dramatic advances in battery storage technology, which allows consumers to store the energy they’ve generated for later use, will make going off the grid possible sooner than we think. I suspect there are a growing number of homes already planning to do this, and this should be a wake-up call for HECO to keep them in the family.

But for HECO’s solar policies to remain credible, it needs to rely less on its mantra of “stability and reliability” and turn to one that allows hook-ups more quickly, and incentives and assurances to put as much solar on our roofs as possible, especially while the federal 30 percent tax credit remains alive. That expires Dec. 31, 2016. Right now, there are enough financial incentives for most homeowners with rooftop PV systems to enter into net energy metering (NEM) agreements with HECO, whereby they sell the excess electricity their systems produce back to the utility.

But this incentive could become outdated at the present pace and by disincentives planned by HECO. Even though the company recently announced it will address its backlog of 4,800 applications for PV interconnection from customers seeking to supply electricity to the grid by April 2015, those customers hoping to purchase and install a PV system with a NEM agreement will be at the proverbial “back of the line.”

This delay in the approval process, combined with HECO wanting to start paying its NEM customers a less favorable rate for the electricity they feed into the grid (part of a proposal yet to be approved by the Public Utilities Commission), may make this arrangement less attractive. And again, this would force people to consider getting off the grid as a viable option.

For all these reasons, more and more people will be compelled to move over to the “non-export model” — that is, not feeding power back into the grid under a net energy metering agreement, but feeding it into their own homes through their own batteries into their own independently generating micro-grid. What could be more American than this?

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