Hawaii solar savings spark higher electric bills


THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

HONOLULU — Savings for those with rooftop solar panels mean lost revenue for Hawaiian Electric Co., which will lead to higher electricity bills for those without them.

The electric bill savings for those who installed photovoltaic panels translated into a loss of $7.4 million that Hawaiian Electric said the utility will have to make up with an estimated rate increase of a half-cent a kilowatt-hour on Oahu, 1.7 cents on the Big Island and 1.6 cents for Maui County. A typical customer using 600 kilowatt-hours per month would see a possible rate increase of $3 on Oahu, about $10 on the Big Island and $9.60 for Maui County.

Customers installed enough solar panels to HECO's grid to generate a maximum 30 megawatts of electricity last year — nearly triple the capacity installed in 2010.

Solar panel customers generate their own power during the day but still rely on the electricity grid at night. The utility must still provide those customers with electricity even when they don't help pay for fixed costs such as meter reading and billing.

"It's not equitable," said Hermina Morita, chairwoman of the state Public Utilities Commission. "It's something the commission will have to look at closely."

Hawaii's 2008 Clean Energy Initiative mandates the state achieve 40 percent renewable energy and 30 percent energy efficiency by 2030.

"Currently, the value of adding more customer-sited renewable energy and using less oil is considered to outweigh this lost contribution to fixed costs," said HECO spokesman Peter Rosegg.

The renewable energy mandate sometimes conflicts with HECO's duty to shareholders, said Rep. Cynthia Thielen, a member of the House Energy and Environmental Protection Committee. "This is why the utility needs to be restricted to distribution of electricity only," said Thielen, R-Kailua-Kaneohe. "It's another example of why HECO shouldn't be in charge of both generation and distribution."

The solar panel industry has exploded throughout the state in recent years, and the losses that were formerly just an "annoyance" have become a major hurdle for HELCO, said Marco Mangelsdorf, owner and operator of ProVision Solar Inc., a Hilo-based solar electric dealer and installer.

"I've been in the renewable energy field for more than 30 years, and doing nothing but PV (photovoltaic) installations since 2000," he said. "I've seen way more entrants into the field. Now there are more than 150 PV equipment providers in the state, compared to just a handful seven or eight years ago. ... Clearly, this is a technology that has reached close to a mass adoption scale here."

The Big Island has straggled behind Oahu and Maui in adding photovoltaic capacity, but last year's installations more than doubled 2010's installed capacity, setting a Big Island record of 4.5 megawatts. The state as a whole, meanwhile, almost tripled the capacity of installations, going from 11.5 megawatts in 2010 to 29.6 megwatts in 2011.

Such a boom in solar energy means losses for HELCO and its parent company that won't be sustainable, according to Mangelsdorf, who taught a University of Hawaii at Hilo class on the politics of energy last year.

"The point made in the report to the (Public Utility Commission), and which I think is justified, is that when there are few ... systems out there, HELCO is going to take much less of a hit compared to the explosive growth ... in the past several years," he said.

"Right now, that means, logically, that all the rest of the rate payers, the majority of the people on the island, are in fact subsidizing the minority, who are able to take advantage of putting these systems into their homes."

Calls seeking comment from HELCO representatives on the Big Island were not returned as of press time Monday.

Stephens Media's Colin M. Stewart contributed to this article.