Hawaii Is a “Postcard from the Future”

Today, the New York Times published a good look at how Hawaii’s residential solar power industry, the most advanced in the US, is forcing obsolete power companies to change, and how those power companies are fighting back. Regular readers of The Power Line are already familiar with the issues, as well as the Edison Electric Institute’s agenda of sabotaging small scale solar generation.  The Times article about Hawaii shows why the electric industry is fighting a losing battle.

The utility wants to cut roughly in half the amount it pays customers for solar electricity they send back to the grid. But after a study showed that with some upgrades the system could handle much more solar than the company had assumed, the state’s public utilities commission ordered the utility to begin installations or prove why it could not.

It was but one sign of the agency’s growing impatience with what it considers the utility’s failure to adapt its business model to the changing market.

Hawaiian Electric is scrambling to accede to that demand, approving thousands of applications in recent weeks. But it is under pressure on other fronts as well. NextEra Energy, based in Florida, is awaiting approval to buy it, while other islands it serves are exploring defecting to form their own cooperative power companies.

It is also upgrading its circuits and meters to better regulate the flow of electricity. Rooftop solar makes far more power than any other single source, said Colton Ching, vice president for energy delivery at Hawaiian Electric, but the utility can neither control nor predict the output.

“At every different moment, we have to make sure that the amount of power we generate is equal to the amount of energy being used, and if we don’t keep that balance things go unstable,” he said, pointing to the illuminated graphs and diagrams tracking energy production from wind and solar farms, as well as coal-fueled generators in the utility’s main control room. But the rooftop systems are “essentially invisible to us,” he said, “because they sit behind a customer’s meter and we don’t have a means to directly measure them.”

For customers, such explanations offer little comfort as they continue to pay among the highest electric rates in the country and still face an uncertain solar future.

Note the “problem” cited by the Hawaii Electric staffer:

But the rooftop systems are “essentially invisible to us,” he said, “because they sit behind a customer’s meter and we don’t have a means to directly measure them.”

And why is that?  Because the power company has failed to install the digital metering technology that allows the power company to “see” behind the meter systems.  This is not a big deal.  But Hawaii Electric, like all major electric utilities, prefers to fight the solar trend, instead of building a more reliable and resilient distribution grid.

Here is a link to an article about the study that Times reporter Diane Cardwell mentions in her story.  Enphase Energy, maker of micro-inverters and digital management systems, showed that Hawaii Electric’s Colton Ching was simply wrong to claim that the company couldn’t add any new solar generators to its system.

Renewable power company NextEra Energy is showing Hawaii Electric what happens when dinosaurs refuse to change.  They disappear.

Load defection”  is the final threat to Hawaii Electric, that they can do little about:

Installers — who saw their fast-growing businesses slow to a trickle — are also frustrated with the pace. For those who can afford it, said James Whitcomb, chief executive of Haleakala Solar, which he started in 1977, the answer may lie in a more radical solution: Avoid the utility and its grid altogether.

Customers are increasingly asking about the batteries that he often puts in along with the solar panels, allowing them to store the power they generate during the day for use at night. It is more expensive, but it breaks consumer reliance on the utility’s network of power lines.

“I’ve actually taken people right off the grid,” he said, including a couple who got tired of waiting for Hawaiian Electric to approve their solar system and expressed no interest in returning to utility service. “The lumbering big utilities that are so used to taking three months to study this and then six months to do that — what they don’t understand is that things are moving at the speed of business. Like with digital photography — this is inevitable.”

4 thoughts on “Hawaii Is a “Postcard from the Future”

  1. Thanks bill. I knew a few sw engineers who worked for 1st energy and quit. They felt that it was a career graveyard. I suspect that power companies are full of execs who are simply treading water collecting their checks.

    • Steve,

      We are at an historical turning point in the US electrical industry. I consider myself lucky to be a part of it. In Hawaii, we are seeing the combination of technology and a business model (NextEra) that is ready to take on the challenge of rebuilding our electrical distribution system.

  2. Dear Friends–

    Bill Howley managed energy-related affairs more comprehensively than any human I’ve met. I met him through his work and the communications he shared like this blog.

    I knew of Bill as a farmer who circled his field with many loves on his mind. A careful reader who developed better solutions and sustained communications with utilities, politicians, activists and ratepayers. He challenged all- especially ratepayers to resist being passive consumers. Bill seemed to grow stronger when selfish interests won momentary victories. I already miss Bill very much, and I never had the opportunity to meet him face to face.

    The header of the last post Bill Howley left on this blog featured the image of a wood fired hearth, a message to the future and these words of Mohandas Gandhi, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

    Bill died on the day the WI PSC ordered Badger-Coulee– one of many wasteful utility proposals he followed and counseled many to question.

    Bill, This is not a last post. I will try to avoid using fighting words, continue to learn better ways and to communicate. Rest in peace.

    Rob Danielson
    SOUL of Wisconsin, Secretary

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