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No State Is an Island: Hawaii's Rooftop Solar Fight Is All of Ours

'What's happening in Hawaii is a sign of battles to come in the rest of the United States'

- Jon Queally, staff writer

To borrow the political phrase for the increasing number of fights now facing the national solar industry: all rooftop solar battles are local.

With the world supply of affordable fossil fuels growing short and the ascendent climate justice movement making the imperative for a cleaner, more sustainable energy future clearer every day, the political and financial tensions between decentralized power sources like residential rooftop solar and large utility companies are becoming more and more common.

As the cost of rooftoop technology falls and the industry enjoys steady growth, a pattern is emerging in which the proliferation of "net metering" or solar "feed-ins" schemes—in which owners of rooftop units receive credit for the energy they produce and send back to the grid—creates such favorable conditions for homeowners that the number of new solar installations is outpacing what the local utility companies say they can manage.

Arguing that having too many rooftop suppliers creates both a reliability problem with the grid and a financial burden to their bottom lines, utilities then lobby governments or regulatory bodies to restrict the ability for new solar projects to move forward.

In Hawaii—where residents currently experience the highest electricity rates in the country—advocates and suppliers of decentralized rooftop solar power are now facing increasingly restrictive policies as Hawaiin Electric and other utilities that manage the power grid on the state's various islands try to put a hold on the installation of new residential rooftop systems.

As Reuters reports Monday:

What's happening in Hawaii is a sign of battles to come in the rest of the United States, solar industry and electric utility executives said. The conflict is the latest variation on what was a controversial issue this year in top solar markets California and Arizona. It was a hot topic at a solar industry conference last week: how to foster the growth of rooftop solar power while easing the concerns of regulated utilities that see its rise as a threat. [...]

Although Hawaii's problems are specific to the way its small independent power grids work, the issue offers a window into the challenges other states may face as they bring more and more rooftop solar onto their grids.

"I see us as really the Petri dish out here in Hawaii," said Leslie Cole-Brooks, executive director of the Hawaii Solar Energy Association. "Everyone is going to get to this point."

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As renewable energy journalist Paul Voosen once explained about the utility vs. rooftop argument:

It is a challenge without simple solutions or easy villains. There are real technical and safety reasons electrical companies have imposed these solar thresholds, stemming from the centralized model that, since Thomas Edison, has dominated how the world distributes and consumes electricity. No one, it seems, ever suspected that homeowners would seek to generate their own electricity at the levels now seen in Hawaii.

Indeed, while Hawaii's success in adopting solar power should be cheered, its troubles are putting the lie to the notion that once solar electricity is cost competitive with fossil fuels -- grid parity, as the idea is called -- that consumers will rapidly install the technology in a flurry of market-spurred, carbon-reducing glory. Given the realities of electricity production, where risk aversion is sacred, even compulsive, it's not so simple.

In fact, looked at by some, it is only solar's exponential growth in recent years that has made these conflicts between the rooftop solar industry and the utilities possible.

As the Los Angeles Times reported last year:

Solar power has grown increasingly popular across the U.S. Sun Belt, but hardly anywhere has it taken hold as it has in Hawaii. Friendly tax credits, the highest average electricity rates in the nation and the most aggressive renewable energy program adopted by any state have sent homeowners scrambling to install photovoltaic systems on their roofs.

The number of solar power systems across the island state has doubled every year since 2007, with nearly 20,000 units installed. But with homeowners and businesses now producing nearly 140 megawatts of their own power — the equivalent of a medium-size power plant — and solar tax credits biting seriously into the state budget, Hawaii legislators and electrical utilities [began] tapping the brakes.

In the end, as a model of what could be possible, the intricate policy disputes in Hawaii—and the realities confronting rooftop solar in other states where the industry has flourished—serve as valuable lessons for renewable energy advocates nationwide.

Because the technology is decentralized by nature, the way in which local governments deal with the regulated utility companies that operate the electricity grid is a story likely coming to a newspaper or rooftop near you.

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