The business outlook for solar in Hawaii certainly looks ‘sunny’ with graphs like this one from the LA Times showing solar capacity on an exponential growth curve: doubling in size every year since 2007.
Obviously abundant sunshine has something to do with it, but just as significant is how the average Hawaiian electricity bill is nearly twice as high as the next most expensive state.
Hawaii has to import most of its energy sources, burning expensive oil to generate over 75% of it’s electricity. This is particularly galling to the Hawaiians who, as an island culture, traditionally pride themselves on self-sufficiency. Which is why they’ve taken to solar so enthusiastically. Presumably living in a natural paradise makes them more motivated to preserve it, but mainly the motivation to go ‘green’ is saving greenbacks on those huge utility bills.
This has made Hawaii a solar pioneer, and it now aims to get 40% of its power from renewable sources by 2030. The pioneering Hawaiians have innovated solutions to new problems, and solved problems the rest of us are likely to face soon, which is why we should take a look at how they did it.
An interesting problem Hawaii’s been working on is how to compensate for the unpredictability of the sun’s power. Clouds float by in random ways, and Hawaii’s been developing better weather prediction technologies and models to help utilities plan ahead and adjust for spikes and dips in solar power generation. Hawaii’s diverse micro-climates actually make it an excellent microcosm of America’s diverse regions, so it’s a great testing ground.
The Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) has been helping the Hawaiian Electric Company to test such technologies, and they’ve installed a network of sensors in their districts that gauge the sun’s strength. They’ve also developed a 36-hour forecasting system for solar energy headed by the National Center for Atmospheric Research, which is being closely watched by other states also showing exponential solar growth.
An unexpected problem for Hawaii is not how PV panels produce too little power, but too much, which can overload the grid. Originally, Hawaii followed ‘the 15% rule,’ which stops solar installations from producing more than 15 percent of the maximum energy demand in a given day. However, it’s becoming generally acknowledged that utilities were overly cautious and arrived at the 15 percent rule somewhat arbitrarily. Consequently popular pressure recently raised Hawaii’s maximum to 23 percent of maximum daily demand.
And further rises are likely because there are other ways to raise that percentage. For example, home solar is often invisible to the operators and centralized systems that track power generation, which makes the grid vulnerable to sudden spikes, surges, or drop-offs. The way to fix that is with installing smart meters that let operators see and control what’s flowing into the grid. Hawaii has been installing smart meters since last spring with it’s Maui Smart Grid Project.
Another way to balance out those power fluctuations is using grid level batteries, a very new technology, and again, Hawaii is on the cutting edge, experimenting with using 1 megawatt batteries on three different islands. These batteries aren’t cheap, but if they work, demand will push prices down and make the batteries more affordable for everyone.
Another expected challenge is the unpredictable politics of solar tax credits. As solar becomes more popular, Hawaii has been handing out more solar tax credit dollars, and the benefits have been numerous. And not just with cleaner air, and better health, but with real tangibles like jobs. Solar construction is now 26 percent of the state’s construction budget. And according to a report by the Hawaiian non-profit Blue Planet Foundation, every dollar spent in residential solar tax credits, the state gets $1.97 in added tax revenues, and $2.67 for commercial installations.
However, instead of encouraging the welcome transition to clean renewable energy, or at least not fixing what ain’t broke, Hawaii’s utilities have been arguing to reduce the amount of solar tax credits. Fortunately Hawaii’s Public Utilities Commission recently voted against the utilities and reduced the guaranteed rate of return for the Hawaiian Electric Co. from 10% to 9%. Hopefully this sets a precedent for other utilities trying to fight solar tax credits.
While Hawaii works to create a stable tax policy, and improve it’s solar prediction technologies, and begins to install the ‘smart grid’, and pioneer grid level storage, and solar sensors, and cutting edge tech – all to allow for more solar and renewables in its energy mix – the rest of us handily benefit from Hawaii’s hard work. Thanks Hawaii! Don’t worry, you live in a tropical beach paradise, you’ll always get the last laugh.