Newsletter: How people can play a role in Hawaii’s shift to clean energy

A paradigm shift is afoot as the coal plant closure looms.

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Welcome to the third and final installment of our newsletter series on the Aloha State. So far we’ve covered Hawaii’s bellwether push for clean energy and how a massive new battery is paving the way for a complete end to coal power. Now I’m going to tell you how residents on Oahu are getting asked to play a bigger role in the grid transition.

Hawaii’s rooftop solar industry boomed early and was so successful that the island grids ended up with more power than they needed in the sunniest hours.

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The major utility, Hawaiian Electric, then pushed for policies that disincentivized sending excess rooftop solar production to the grid. Customers had to minimize exports by consuming what they produced or getting a battery to store it. 

That’s changing now that the last coal plant on Oahu is shutting down.

  • There’s a real possibility of an electricity shortfall between the shutdown and the beginning of operations of a fleet of large solar and battery projects now being installed. 
  • In response, the utility regulator has rapidly opened up new pathways to build more local energy.
  • The message now is that households can be part of the solution by producing more clean energy and sharing it with the grid.

Here’s how James Griffin, the chair of the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission, described it to me last week:

We’ve got to think of a paradigm shift here, that exported energy — we need it; we’re not trying to discourage it.”

And here’s what I heard from Colton Ching, senior vice president for planning and technology at Hawaiian Electric:

We cannot get there with just grid-scale resources; we can’t get there with just distributed resources. We need to do both.”
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Rooftop solar swept Hawaii. Now customers are being encouraged to share their clean power with the grid. (Photo credit: Julian Spector)

Home batteries, assemble!

A key pillar of this new paradigm is the Battery Bonus program, which pays homeowners upfront if they agree to use their batteries to help during peak hours. (I touched on this in the newsletter about how to get paid for your battery.)

The owner of a typical home battery with 5 kilowatts of discharge capacity could earn a $4,250 payout for participating in the program. The bonus declines as more people sign up, so there’s an incentive to move early.

Participants in the battery program can also add up to 5 kilowatts of new solar under their existing payment terms. That means net-metering customers, who get paid for their exports, can expand their solar capacity in a way that wasn’t available before. 

Oahu authorities are hoping to accumulate 50 megawatts of capacity from this program. For comparison, that’s about 28 percent of the capacity of the retiring coal plant. 

  • Granted, the batteries are only delivering two hours of power per night, so it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison with the round-the-clock coal plant.
  • But it’s an indication that small batteries in homes can add up to an appreciable contribution to the overall power network.

This is clearly a tool to meet emergency needs,” said Robert Harris, director of public policy at solar and battery installer Sunrun. But in the future, This should just be a standard program that’s available to everyone. And over time, you should be able to add layers of sophistication on what services are being asked for.”

More community solar, too

Not everyone can put solar on their roof. Some people rent their homes, as I do. Others may be blessed with ample shade trees that render their rooftops suboptimal for solar production.

Hawaii has a community solar program for those people: Someone builds a solar project and customers can subscribe to a portion of its production. But rules on Oahu used to force these projects to add battery storage.

To prepare for the coal plant closure, the Public Utilities Commission removed the storage requirement for community solar on Oahu, said Earthjustice Senior Attorney Kylie Wager Cruz, who filed comments on behalf of the local solar industry. The PUC also opened up more capacity for community solar development in the immediate near term.

The goal is to get community solar projects online as quickly as possible,” she said. Utility-scale renewable projects typically take longer. This was an opportunity to kick-start smaller-scale solar projects.”

Rooftop solar swept Hawaii. Now customers are being encouraged to share their clean power with the grid. (Photo credit: Julian Spector)

Be nimble

Big solar projects achieve economies of scale, but they also require more intensive permitting and sometimes trigger community pushback. Small-scale solar costs more per unit, but it can happen quickly with the right policies in place.

I saw that firsthand by tagging along with Sunrun, the nation’s largest rooftop solar company, as a team installed two Tesla Powerwall batteries and added more solar panels at a house on the windward side of Oahu.

It’s more physically challenging than just plugging in a box. The process begins with several hours of wiring and attaching various switches and boxes to the wall, and then you have to haul the 250-pound Powerwalls across the yard and affix them to the side of the house. All the while the persistent sun beats down, drenching your clothes in sweat.

Still, a handful of workers were able to install 14 kilowatts of solar and two Powerwalls in one day. With enough crews fanned out across the island, these companies could get some serious capacity installed while the big developers wait for their permits.

The big question now is whether residents care to participate in all these programs that the energy wonks have hustled to set up. 

(Lead photo: Julie Thurston Photography via Getty)

Julian Spector is an editor at Canary Media and reports on the rise of clean energy. He worked at Greentech Media for nearly five years, and before that he reported for CityLab at The Atlantic.