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Leslie Cole-Brooks

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    Leslie Cole-Brooks: Executive director, Hawaii Solar Energy Association.

Leslie Cole-Brooks is executive director of the Hawaii Solar Energy Association, whose 83 business members seem to face unending economic challenges, including likely expiration in 2016 of the 30 percent federal solar investment tax credit for customers, problems with interconnecting to Hawaiian Electric Co.’s energy-distribution grid, and, most recently, the proposed purchase of HECO parent Hawaiian Electric Industries by Florida-based NextEra Energy Co.

Cole-Brooks joined the nonprofit trade association in May 2012, and said it has matched well with her vision of years ago to work on issues close to her heart.

“The old business model where the utility generates and you buy, and then they send you a bill and you send them a check, that’s just gone. And that was great. It was a great party, but now it’s done. So now what do we do?”

Leslie Cole-Brooks
Executive director, Hawaii Solar Energy Association

A graduate of Analy High School in Sebastopol, Calif., she said it was shortly after working with the Sacramento Municipal Utility District in the mid-’90s that she realized “it was the environment and environmental concerns that really mattered to me.” That’s also why, after already earning degrees in geology (University of California, Davis, 1982) and both a graduate certificate in energy management and design (1994) and a master’s degree in English from Sonoma State University (1997), she decided to also pursue a law degree.

“I was working for an advocacy group that worked on clean water in Northern California,” she said, “and I saw that law was where the rubber really met the road. They got stuff done. So I just took the leap.”

She learned that the University of Hawaii’s law school had one of the nation’s best environmental law programs, “and for me as a swimmer, it was just such an easy decision.”

Earning her law degree in 2010, Cole-Brooks went on to work for state Rep. Cynthia Thielen, whom she admired for her work on environmental issues, then worked with her husband Andy in their general contracting business while frequently testifying as an individual at the Legislature on bills that she cared about, some of which related to solar energy.

That’s how she came to meet HSEA co-founder Cully Judd III, which led to her joining the association, which was founded in 1977 and whose members include “contractors, installers, distributors, manufacturers, utility and other businesses that are involved with the solar industry.”

Cole-Brooks is still active as a swimmer at the Oahu Club in Hawaii, and lives with her husband in Kuliouou Makai.

Question: What is the purpose of the Hawaii Solar Energy Association?

Answer: Our purpose is to promote the adoption of solar energy for a sustainable economy and a clean energy future. We advocate for all renewables, but our focus is on solar hot water and photovoltaic, commercial and residential, so it’s more rooftop, even though some of our members do larger projects as well.

Q: How are the members of the association doing right now? Are they mostly healthy?

A: It’s been a tough couple of years. We had changes with the way the tax credit was administered at the end of 2012, and then there’s been …

Q: What happened to the tax credit?

A: It’s kind of a long story, but there was a change in the way the cap was calculated. … And it closed a loophole, which I think in the long run it’s probably a good thing, but it was more the uncertainty that it caused customers and businesses. … It’s like anything, that a business needs stability, and not the sense that something is going to change that could really impact you in the long run. …

But the real issue has been interconnection, and that’s what we have been struggling with these last couple of years. The utility (Hawaiian Electric Co.) has said, “Wait a minute. We have concerns and issues with the degree of penetration of intermittent resources,” and things slowed down significantly in 2013, and we’re still recovering.

Q: Is that about how HECO was delaying approval of interconnections to the grid?

A: Yes. It is all part of that. Before this change in the way net energy metering (NEM) was administered, on Oahu you could go and get your installations, get your permits and do all that and then you file your NEM application at the end; you knew that you would get in. But now you need to file the NEM application first and get approval before you install an energizing system, depending on where you are.

Q: About the tax credits, what do you think about the idea that … the solar industry has been getting an unfair government advantage and it’s time to start ending those government breaks?

A: When I hear that we don’t need the tax incentive any more, I think, OK, the purpose of a tax incentive is it’s a signal from government that says we want to see this happen. And, in fact, we want to see this happen so badly that we’re willing to invest in it and create an incentive for customers to invest their own money on that because it’s good for everybody, right?

So, OK, I see we’ve got 12 percent of rooftops (in Hawaii) have some form of photovoltaic, but we have 88 percent that do not. So I don’t see that as “mission accomplished.” I don’t see that as being “we’re done now.” So when I hear anyone saying “we need to get rid of the incentive,” I ask, “Oh, I guess we’re finished, huh? We’re good to go? We’re 100 percent renewable, and we’ve done it all?”

Q: You wrote a commentary for the Star-Advertiser in September titled “Is Hawaiian Electric trying to kill rooftop solar?” Your conclusion then was what, and what would it be now?

A: Well, at that point it seemed the change in the way net energy metering was administered, it was so abrupt and sudden that it caused complete chaos for some time, where companies and customers were trying to adjust and figure out what was what, and also that it really depended on where you were, what your circuit status was … Now we’re working our way through it, and I think that through the DER (distributed energy resources) docket (before the state Public Utilities Commission) that we’re making progress; it’s just been quite a journey and people have certainly lost their jobs, companies have gone out of business. … It’s hard to say, though, what’s coming up … considering all the things going on with the solar industry.

We’ve got the potential change of control of the utility, and we also have the fact that the ITC, the federal investment tax credit, is about to expire for residential systems at the end of 2016. That’s a 30 percent tax credit, money that stays here in the state, money that would have been sent off to the federal government on your taxes. That’s 30 percent of the basis of the system which will be pau at the end of 2016, unless there’s some kind of change. So how will that affect the industry? How will the PUC respond to the DER docket?

Q: What’s the DER docket all about?

A: “Distributed energy resources” is another way to say distributed generation. So it’s all about rooftop solar, essentially.

Q: Regarding the challenges the industry is facing — lower prices for fossil fuels would be one of them, too, right?

A: Well, yes and no. As a geologist, I know that the cost of fossil fuels is only going to go up. And maybe we have this interim period because of what’s been happening with geopolitics, but the cost of fossil fuels is going to go up. And Hawaii will always be the most isolated island on the planet, and we will probably always have the highest rates in the nation so long as we are beholden to imported fossil fuels. So to stall our progress right now, getting to 100 percent renewables, because fossil fuel prices are lower, would be a huge mistake.

I don’t really see that as an issue. I see more the interconnection process and the utility business model and how does the utility adjust to the fact that people can generate their own electricity, and how do we now interact with the utility in a way that is a true collaboration to use all these distributed resources in a way that’s a benefit for everybody?

Q: How decentralized can we really go?

A: That’s a great question. Rather, I should say that is the question. The old business model where the utility generates and you buy, and then they send you a bill and you send them a check, that’s just gone. And that was great. It was a great party, but now it’s done. So now what do we do?

This is what’s been happening, and, again, it’s in the distributed energy resource docket, in phase two, which will be entered soon, where the Public Utilities Commission, along with the utility and all the intervenors, are going to look at the metrics that matter: How much does it cost to keep the grid alive and well, and how much should each individual customer pay in order to be keep this system going?

Q: There’s this sense that people with net metering are not really paying their fair share for the grid. Is that right?

A: We keep hearing that, and our response is, “Let’s please do the analysis to find out what is the right rate.”

And the other question is, in terms of distributed resources, “What is the value of these resources as it pertains to what they give to the grid?” We only hear about what they call the cost shift … and it’s always said in this way that’s final and determined and everyone agrees. But it should be not “cost shift,” but rather “cost shift?” — with a question mark at the end. What is it, how is it calculated and what about all of the benefits that distributed generation does and can provide to the grid? That’s really an answer to your question about how decentralized can we go. So it’s really exciting. That’s where we’re going and it’s new territory.

Q: Does it require a big technological advance — batteries or something?

A: Yes, it does. If we’re going to get to a 100 percent RPS (renewable portfolio standards) by 2045 or sooner, we absolutely have to have storage. … Most of the time (in Hawaii) we have this incredible … cornucopia of resources, right? We have the sun, wind, geothermal, biomass, waves, and we’ll have OTEC someday. It’s amazing. But unfortunately the generation doesn’t always match the load. So what do you do … if you don’t need all that power? We need to store it. … We need a way to capture that wealth and use it later.

Q: What do you think of the proposed NextEra buyout of HEI?

A: We’re very concerned. When I first filed my motion to intervene, … I was neutral. … I wanted to give it a chance. But in … my direct testimony on behalf of HSEA, I came out against this new control and stated it is not in the public interest.

Our concern is really Florida Power and Light’s record in Florida — Florida, the sunshine state, right? Here in Hawaii, we have 12-13 percent of solar on residential roof space, and in Florida, it’s something like 0.5 percent of residential customers. … And they have this huge AC load. So there’s this real mismatch. … But that’s the take of what’s been happening in Florida, and what’s been happening with their efficiency standards, which were severely downgraded. Then there’re concerns about PPAs (power purchasing agreements) and the fact that they can’t do third-party transactions. Will they behave the same way when they come to Hawaii?

Q: Could it be any worse than the way it is right now?

A: Yes, absolutely. You know, working with HECO we’ve had our struggles, but again I think it goes back to the business model, that they’re trying to apply an old model to the new reality and utilities aren’t known for being these innovative, nimble startups, you know?

Q: Speaking of where we want to go, do you really think the 2045 goal to be 100 percent RPS is achievable?

A: Yes. We have to do it.

Q: You don’t think there’s a place at all for fossil fuels — God’s gift from the ground?

A: (Laughter) Oh yes, there is a place for fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are what fueled the Industrial Revolution, right?

Q: Right, and in the Third World, especially, they still need that stuff pretty bad.

A: Well, in the 100 percent RPS bill, there are caveats, that it’s not what we’re going to do no matter what happens. What it is, is it sets the goal and it sets the intention of where we want to go. And I a hundred percent believe that we need to set the goal and the intention, and … yes, I can see us getting there. I think Hawaii can do it.

First of all, we have the resources, which I talked about before. We have the perfect climate. We have the financial driver because of our high electric rates, which aren’t going to go down; we have the continued vulnerability of relying on fossil fuels that are coming from elsewhere; and I just think Hawaii has the heart. I think that people care about the environment here, and they see that as a goal that we can embrace. … Now the hard work begins.

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