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HELCO must revise its clean energy response

April 11, 2014 - 12:05am

There is lots of good news on the clean energy front these days. The Department of Education is moving forward with a plan to invest in renewable energy for school facilities. The state is hoping to roll out the new Green Energy Market Securitization program passed by the Legislature last year to make rooftop solar affordable for low- and middle-income families. And, the state is well ahead of its renewable energy goals, having already exceeded our 2015 goal of 15 percent.

However, despite all these achievements, there are many areas of the state — including West Hawaii — that won’t reap the benefits of these achievements. With Hawaii Electric Light Co. claiming that we have reached “grid saturation” and denying permits for new grid-connected systems, our schools, businesses and residents won’t be able to access these new programs to lower the cost of and advance renewable energy production in the state. At the same time, residents and businesses who haven’t or cannot invest in solar systems are paying higher-than-ever rates.

At the Legislature this year we are working on bills to address these issues. These include measures to incentivize investment in energy storage systems, and to push utilities to undertake needed grid modernization. However, HELCO could have voluntarily invested in these grid upgrades years ago. Instead, they chose to drag their heels and put the interests of shareholders before the interests of customers. At the same time, the utility lays blame for rate increases on solar customers instead of shouldering the responsibility themselves.

As rates increase and new technology lowers the cost of off-grid systems (solar with battery backup), there will come a point where the cost and convenience of going off-grid is equal to or less than the cost of remaining a utility customer. When this point of “grid parity” is reached, more and more people will leave the grid and cease to be customers of the utility. As more customers defect from the grid, rates will increase for those who remain, encouraging even more people to leave. This has been referred to as the “utility death spiral,” and, for Hawaii, it could be right around the corner. A recent report estimates that, for residential customers, we will reach grid parity in Hawaii in 2022. It could be even sooner for neighbor islands where rates are highest.

Like it or not, the way we generate and distribute electricity is fundamentally changing, and utility structures that worked in the past are rapidly becoming obsolete. If HELCO does not take steps to adapt, they face business failure at the hands of market forces. If that happens, it will be a painful and chaotic transition that will damage Hawaii’s economy and cost taxpayers.

It is time for HELCO to re-evaluate its business structure, so that we can reduce rates, accommodate customer-generated power, increase efficiency, and embrace Hawaii’s clean energy future.

Rep. Nicole Lowen

6th House District

Viewpoint articles are the opinion of the writer and not necessarily the opinion of West Hawaii Today.

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