Less than a week after President Donald Trump in June withdrew the U.S. from the worldwide Paris accord on climate change, Hawaii became the first state to push back by enacting legislation that adopts goals of that agreement. It requires the state to expand its already ambitious strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
At that time, Blue Planet Foundation, a Honolulu-based clean-energy nonprofit, asserted that the islands are “uniquely positioned to lead on clean energy solutions,” in part, because we’re on the map for launching the nation’s first 100 percent renewable energy law.
Fast forward to today. In the past several months, notable developments have occurred to advance Hawaii down the green-energy path.
>> In December, the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC) issued a decision directing Hawaii’s electric utilities to implement a community-based renewable energy program. Slated to start later this year, the program allows any Hawaii customer who lives under a roof that is not fitted with solar panels to subscribe to a solar energy project located anywhere on their island grid. Participants will get credit for that energy on their electric bill.
>> In late January, Houston-based NRG Energy held a groundbreaking ceremony at the site of its future solar farm in Mililani — one of three such projects in the works for Oahu. When up and running, they’ll generate enough new electricity to power some 32,000 homes.
>> Earlier this month, Hawaii regulators signed off on Hawaiian Electric Co.’s $205 million Grid Modernization Strategy. Its “smart grid” concept will be implemented over the next six years as HECO and affiliates put in place apparatus such as wireless devices that can turn off rooftop solar systems, and power outage management and notification technology. The upgrades aim to create “renewable-ready” island grids and improve flexibility in harnessing future tech breakthroughs.
>> Also this month, HECO is asking PUC approval to seek new renewable projects for Oahu, Maui and Hawaii island. These requests for proposals — in line with HECO’s Power Supply Improvement Plan accepted by the PUC last July — aim to procure via renewable energy resources 220 megawatts for Oahu, 60 megawatts for Maui and 20 megawatts for Hawaii island.
“The future for the system here, it’s not going to be just power plants. It’s going to be customer loads, it’s going to be batteries, it’s going to be electric vehicles. Those are all going to be resources that we can actively monitor and … have some source of control to keep everything in balance,” said HECO’s vice president for public affairs, Scott Seu.
“Our long-range plans are over time that we will be replacing our older generators with newer types that are much more flexible.”
Such strides are needed to make good on the state’s renewable energy law. In 2015, Gov. David Ige signed off on the mandate that directs the utilities to draw all electricity sales from renewable energy resources by 2045. To reach the 100 percent mark, they’ll likely expand solar, wind and biofuel projects. HECO expects private solar systems to slightly more than double by 2030 to 165,000, from about 80,000 now in use across its territories.
Also in the lineup are emerging hybrid technologies. HECO’s president and CEO, Alan Oshima, said, “We are open to a lot of hybrid solutions. … There is not one thing in isolation that is going to get us there.” Regarding the dominant utility’s evolving role, he said: “We’re done with telling you how to do it. We want people to come up with solutions that make sense for our customers.”
Enacting news laws, though, can touch off unexpected stops and starts.
For example, 10 years ago, when then-Gov. Linda Lingle signed the first-in-the-nation legislation requiring new homes to be built with solar water heaters, it was hailed as a key to helping Hawaii lose its title as the most oil-dependent state in the nation. But through a variance intended for rare cases, in recent years, more than 30 percent of new homes have been built without solar water heaters, with the state approving 99 percent of requests for exemption.
Single-family homes may be exempted in cases of inadequate sunlight; a cost-benefit analysis deeming solar too expensive; or the installation of at least one gas appliance in the home, in which case it’s OK to go with a gas-fueled “demand water heater device” rather than a heater powered by renewable energy.
State lawmakers are now weighing several measures that aim to further advance green goals — and in some cases, tweak standing law.
>> House Bill 2109 further narrows the scope of the solar water heater variance, and requires that exemption applications be signed by the architect or mechanical engineer attesting to the need.
In written testimony, Brian Kealoha, executive director of Hawaii Energy, a program that helps reduce electricity use by providing free or low-cost efficient appliances and other products, said housing developers are using the loophole to reduce their upfront costs.
But opting for a gas water heater over solar in a sun-drenched area such as Oahu’s Ewa Plain — where the first phase of Ho‘opili’s 11,750-home development is taking shape — can add up to a higher electric bill for the homeowner. In the long run, Kealoha said, “installation of cost-effective energy efficiency measures at the time of construction … presents the lowest cost to the consumer. … Residents will see a significant benefit over the next 20 years with most, if not all, of their water heating costs eliminated through the installation of solar water heaters.”
>> House Bill 2110 encourages development of stand-alone microgrid systems that can also plug into utility-controlled larger grids. It directs the Public Utilities Commission to establish a tariff to standardize the value of services exchanged between a microgrid owner and the utility.
Blue Planet’s executive director, Jeff Mikulina, said: “This could do for microgrids what we did for rooftop solar. Microgrids can provide a lot of value to the larger grid, and their owners should be properly compensated for those services.”
A HECO net metering program, through which rooftop solar owners were paid the retail rate for power sent back to the grid — started in 2001 and halted in 2015 — resulted in a steep rise in photovoltaic system installations. Today, nearly 1 in 3 single-family dwellings across the state produces power from the sun.
Right now, Hawaii has just a few microgrids. The count would likely jump, Mikulina maintained, if the current application process, which involves negotiation with state regulators, is simplified with standard terms regarding services exchanged. “We ought to encourage these,” he said, noting that in emergencies, microgrids can serve as energy storage “oases” that could be more useful than portable generators, for example, that have no tie to a larger grid.
Along those lines, the bill’s supporters point to the devastation of Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria last year. One month after the storm, 90 percent of residents still lacked power. In testimony, Blue Planet said: “Like Puerto Rico, Hawaii’s current energy system is not designed for the violence of climate change.” Puerto Rico is now rebuilding its energy system and incorporating microgrids.
HECO, however, has said the systems cannot be compared as apples to apples, and its infrastructure is stronger than Puerto Rico’s frail government-operated system.
>> House Bill 2248 aims to adopt state appliance efficiency standards intended to save consumers’ money while conserving energy and water resources. The standards would be modeled after those set in California for faucets, showerheads, computers and monitors, fluorescent lamps, commercial fryers and various other items.
Hawaii Energy’s Kealoha pointed out that according to a national report by the Appliance Standards Awareness Project, environmentally sound standards for faucets, showerheads and computers and monitors alone could yield as much as $35 million in annual utility-bill savings in Hawaii.
>> House Bill 2273 would require car rental businesses to fold zero- emission vehicles into their fleets. It also would create an emissions surcharge tax on rentals with internal combustion engines, and launch a state special fund and grant program to promote development of zero-emission vehicle infrastructure, such as recharging stations.
A 2009 law requires parking lots with 100 stalls or more to have at least one EV charging station, but no agency is tasked with holding properties accountable, and there’s no penalty for foot-dragging on charger installation.
>> House Bill 2431 would require the PUC to establish performance incentive mechanisms for electric utilities.
Blue Planet has said currently “utilities aren’t directly rewarded for reducing customer bills, or adding renewable energy, or increasing the resiliency of the system.
In contrast, performance-based ratemaking would tie utility revenues to the achievement of certain performance benchmarks. This would align the financial interests of utility shareholders with the interests of ratepayers and the state.”
Opposing the bill as drafted, HECO said in testimony that “such a framework would make the company subject to penalties and rewards for factors outside of its control” and potentially expose it to “higher levels of risk” that could affect the utility’s investment in infrastructure and ability to provide reliable service.
>> House Bill 1801 aims to amend the definition of “Renewable Portfolio Standard” (RPS) to reflect the percentage of renewable energy penetration in the state. Also, it establishes standards and targets for gas utility companies that mirror those for electric companies.
The state Consumer Advocate, in testimony, supported the proposed change in a 2001 law’s RPS calculation from “sales” to “generation.” This tweak eliminates a loophole through which, on paper, the state could exceed more than 100 percent renewable energy.
Henry Curtis, executive director of Life of the Land, an energy and environmental watchdog group, has suggested that the law could be further clarified.
He said the matter whittles down to this: “Fossil fuel means coal, natural gas, or petroleum. Fossil fuel shall not be sold after 2045. Regulatory agencies shall require regulated entities to reduce their use by 50 percent from 2010 baseline levels by 2030, and 75 percent reduction by 2040.”