Throngs urge Hawaii lawmakers to regulate solar


HONOLULU — About 20 people testified their support, some while fighting back tears, for a bill that could lead Hawaii’s electric utilities to better accommodate homeowners who make their own renewable energy.

Impassioned power customers and an out-of-work solar panel installer, among others, urged members of the Senate committees overseeing energy and commerce to push Hawaii’s utilities to set out clearer guidelines for incorporating solar into the state’s power grid.

Democratic Sen. Mike Gabbard, the Energy and Environment Committee chairman, said about 200 people had submitted written testimony, overwhelmingly in support of SB2656. Those who spoke at the hearing did so over the sound of some 70 people overflowing onto the balcony outside the conference room.

The legislation would allocate $750,000 to fund actions by the Hawaii public utilities commission to address “technical and economic barriers” to utilities incorporating solar. It aims to make connecting to the grid a reasonable option for anyone who installs photovoltaic solar panels.

Many who testified directed their frustration at Hawaiian Electric Companies, known as HECO, which they said has kept them from connecting their solar installations to the grid.

Scott Seu, vice president for energy resources and operations at HECO, offered testimony in opposition to the bill. He said that while HECO welcomed a review by the utility commission, the bill set “unrealistic expectations” and could drive up costs for customers who do not produce their own solar energy.

In the case of William Walker, an Ewa Beach homeowner who testified, that has meant mothballing a system he paid for with a $35,000 loan.

Another homeowner, Cynthia Cantero, testified that she invested in solar in hopes she and her children would save money. She said through tears that she suffers from cancer and now pays $480 monthly on a loan for solar panels that she cannot use, while continuing to pay her electric bill.

Robert Harris, the director of the Sierra Club of Hawaii, testified in support of the bill. He said better guidelines are the utilities’ best interest, to keep homeowners who invest in solar from leaving the grid altogether.

“One in 10 roofs in Oahu has solar,” he said in an interview. “We are in some ways a crystal ball for the rest of the country. Hawaii needs to do it right.”

Uncertainty around using solar panels has slowed the local industry, installers testified. Among them was Isaac Luke, of Wahiawa, who expressed surprise that HECO had not modernized the grid years earlier to make room for solar.

He testified while wearing a company shirt from Alternate Energy. That was despite having been laid off in January as business slowed, he said after the hearing. It had become routine, he said, to install systems that HECO wouldn’t allow to connect to the grid.

“That’s the thing that’s hard,” Luke, 27, said. “We go to homeowners, we hook them up, and then we tell them we have to turn their system back off.”

———

Sam Eifling can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sameifling.