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Balancing act: HELCO plans boost in renewable energy use


Hawaii Electric Light Co. is proposing to boost its use of renewable energy sources by 2030, providing for 92 percent of the Big Island’s energy needs, but would also require customers with rooftop solar to pay more than they do now.

Within 16 years, according to a plan presented this week by the Hawaiian Electric Companies, renewable energy is expected to account for 65 percent of energy used statewide, solar installations would nearly triple, and customers would see their bills lowered by 20 percent. The utilities filed with the state Public Utilities Commission on Tuesday a number of documents detailing the plan in response to an April order from the PUC to find ways to lower energy costs for consumers.

In an interview Wednesday, HELCO President Jay Ignacio explained that upon being asked by the PUC to look at ways to cut costs to consumers, the utility took several concerns into account.

“You want to balance everyone’s interest and try to meet some objectives while still giving customers a choice as to what they want to do, especially generating their own electricity,” he said. “For those who don’t choose to generate, we wanted it to be fair for them. We wanted to select the lowest cost resources and renewable resources … while keeping the electric system reliable and safe. Then, we looked at all the options with the technicians, ran the simulations, looked at performance characteristics, and then picked which combinations would work the best.”

Among the concerns that needed to be addressed was how to increase the inclusion into the energy grid of power generated by consumers using their own renewable energy resources, such as rooftop solar.

Currently, HELCO uses a net energy metering system that buys excess power from customers at market prices. But as solar adoption has grown, the utility’s ability to incorporate that energy back into the system has been strained.

“In evaluating technological requirements needed to increase the amount of (distributed generation) that can be supported, the current Net Energy Metering program and rate structure, which increasingly adversely impacts non-NEM customers, has become unsustainable. Some fixed costs associated with supporting the grid are shifted to full service customers, with many NEM customers paying less than their cost for services they receive from the utility,” according to the HELCO plan.

HELCO proposes to drop the NEM program, and to charge solar and nonsolar customers the same flat fees for infrastructure and maintenance.

“Customers would have two components to the bill: a fixed charge to capture those costs, and then an energy component. If you self-generate, you have a smaller energy component to your bill,” Ignacio said.

Marco Mangelsdorf, president of Hilo-based ProVision Solar, said he hadn’t had time to examine HELCO’s plans, but wondered what the short-range impacts might be.

“I’m a lot less interested in what solar penetration is going to be in 2030. I’m much more interested in the near-term time frame. The next six, 12, 18 months. They have some wonderful targets, tripling solar in the next 16 years, and that’s all well and good. But what is likely to be decided between the PUC and the stakeholders? What is likely to actually be implemented is of the most interest to me, and it’s far too early to tell.”

Mangelsdorf said that doing away with the NEM program would likely remove some of the incentive for customers to install rooftop solar. But he also said that people claiming “the sky would fall” if the program is dropped are overstating their case.

Other changes in HELCO’s proposal include switching Hawaii Island fossil fuel generators to using liquid natural gas. The utility also would invest in energy storage systems, including batteries, to store energy generated by renewable resources to help pick up the slack left by variable resources such as wind and solar.

HELCO plans to enhance its energy grid to increase the integration of solar power and to optimize control settings for solar equipment attached to the grid to improve safety and prevent power outages.

Ignacio said there was no set timetable for when the PUC might make a decision on the plans presented by HELCO.

Email Colin M. Stewart at cstewart@hawaiitribune-herald.com.