HILO — A County Council committee on Wednesday had a sunny outlook for a nonbinding resolution asking the state Public Utilities Commission to make it easier for homeowners to hook up solar panels.
The council Agriculture, Water and Energy Sustainability Committee voted 8-0 to move the resolution to a future County Council meeting with a positive recommendation. The resolution also asks the PUC to hold public hearings in Hilo and Kona to discuss the issue.
Homeowners, especially on the Kona side of the island, have complained that they’ve been unable to hook up their solar panels to the Hawaii Electric Co. grid without first conducting an Interconnection Requirements Study that can cost anywhere from $2,000 for homeowners to more than $100,000 for big commercial projects, in addition to the cost of the solar panels themselves.
The study is required when solar power hits a threshold of 15 percent of the peak electricity load of the area. The study takes five to six months to complete, and it can result in the homeowner also having to pay for upgrades to the grid.
The resolution, as amended by the council., would raise that saturation threshold to 30 percent.
“There’s many places in the county of Hawaii that’s already at the threshold,” said council Chairman Dominic Yagong, who sponsored the resolution.
He said National Energy Systems LLC., a Mount Laurel, N.J., renewable energy business, and the solar industry would be willing to pay for the grid upgrades if the threshold is raised to 30 percent.
South Kona councilwoman Brenda Ford asked why HELCO can’t do a study for an entire area, instead of on a house-by-house basis. That would save residents a lot of money, she said.
“I think (the PUC) owes it to us to come out and talk to us, on both sides of the island,” Ford said.
HELCO President Jay Ignacio, contacted before the resolution was amended to raise the threshold, said he agreed “with the spirit” of the resolution. Ignacio, who didn’t attend the meeting because he was on Oahu, couldn’t be reached for further comment after the meeting.
Yagong pointed out that other islands have adjustable threshold rates, depending on how close the photovoltaic systems are to the grid.
Shane Cheatham, a mechanical engineer testifying from Hilo, urged the county get involved.
“There are some concerns that the Hawaii grid will not be able to support an increase in solar power without costly upgrades to the system,” Cheatham said. “Let’s let an independent study determine the cost of upgrading the system and then possibly utilize our taxpayer dollar to upgrade to a smart system instead of upgrading to other unsafe and more costly energy options like geothermal.”
Puna resident Greg Smith said he and his family live off the grid, and he’s made it a point to do that because of the high cost of electricity. He recommended a breakup of the HELCO monopoly.
“The grid as HELCO has made it is a dinosaur that’s strangling us,” Smith said.