Rooftop solar: Back to the future or forward to the past?

by Peter Rosegg | March 10, 2021

Many of us at Hawaiian Electric are taking particular pleasure in announcing a new program called Quick Connect which allows customers adding rooftop solar on Oahu, Maui and Hawaii islands to install and energize new systems that meet technical requirements on most circuits without waiting for the standard, sometimes time-consuming approvals.

“Build first, apply later!” means a quicker reduction on these customers’ monthly electric bills and, we hope, more business for the solar industry here.

This harkens back to the early days of the rooftop solar boom in Hawaii when customers could do the same. There were so few new rooftop systems a decade or more ago that it did not matter to system operators that a few homes across the islands were pumping electricity into the grid, not just taking it out.

Starting about 2010, and especially after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, an unexpected boom doubled rooftop solar uptake annually from 2010 to 2013 and continued strong growth since, as is clear in this graph. It was no longer tenable to have hundreds of homes pumping varying amounts of electricity into our grids, electricity our system operators could not “see” coming and could not control. We had little choice but to require new systems to apply and be approved based on the circuit they wished to interconnect with before allowing them to be energized.

What has changed that now allows us to return to the old system? Technology has improved on both sides of the meter. Rooftop solar now has controls to protect the grid and the systems from sudden fluctuations. Our understanding of how much solar a neighborhood circuit can accept has improved; we developed ways to “see” solar systems and predict solar input; and our grid is upgraded to accept more solar generation.

Finally, from a single program to hook up to the grid — known as net metering — we’ve had PUC approval to offer a variety of program options that do not shift costs from solar customers to those without it. So, for the coming year we will return to the past practice and let most customers who meet certain technical requirements interconnect without waiting for approvals.

Systems up to 100 kW can be activated on almost any circuit, although on certain low capacity (or restricted) circuits these systems will only be for customer use, with no export to the grid until and unless we approve the system. On circuits with greater hosting capacity, systems up to 25 kW can energize and start exporting to the grid at once. We hope the one-year trial will be the way of the future.

We see this as a sign of cooperation between the utility and solar contractors, which is needed to increase rooftop solar adoption. It’s win-win for our customers, our contractor partners and our whole state. Marty McFly would be proud.

Peter Rosegg is a senior corporate relations specialist at Hawaiian Electric Company.

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Established in 1891, Hawaiian Electric is committed to empowering its customers and communities by providing affordable, reliable, clean and sustainable energy.