The Last Gasp of a Dying Dinosaur

Hawaii’s goal of energy independence grew closer with the recent report that the state’s solar installations rose 45% in first quarter 2012 over the same period last year. In only three months Hawaii homeowners and businesses installed another 14.8 megawatts of solar generating capacity.

But though blessed with sunlight, Hawaii lagged far behind the average 85% national increase. New Jersey – not known for its sun – added an astounding 174 MW of solar installations, nearly 12 times Hawaii’s increase.

Hawaii’s comparatively slow gain results from HECO’s limiting solar to 15% per circuit, the utility pleading that further increases will destabilize the grid. But this is a false, self-serving argument – on Kauai, not served by HECO, some circuits are nearly 100% solar penetration with little or no impact on the grid.

With PV prices down 30% over the last two years, solar is becoming the major answer to our renewable energy goals, particularly in sunny Hawaii. And advances in solar will soon make it competitive with coal and gas – and far cheaper than obsolete technologies like industrial wind power – the National Renewable Energy Laboratory recently reported.

Soon every home and business in Hawaii can have its own rooftop solar hot water and PV installation, and our state can be the first in the nation to achieve near-total energy independence. The prospect terrifies HECO, however – because when people are generating most of their power from their own rooftops, HECO’s cash cow – the captive consumer – vanishes.

In fact, Hawaii can generate 90% of its electricity by 2030 by rooftop solar and other distributed energy resources, states another recent report, Navigating Hawaii’s Energy Future . But as customers move to rooftop solar, the report adds, fewer large centralized facilities like power plants and transmission and distribution lines are needed. Remaining utility customers must pay higher and higher rates, driving them also to adopt rooftop PV – the coming “death cycle” of traditional utilities like HECO.

Suppose that every Hawaiian home had its own water source – then why would it be tied to a municipal water system delivering high-cost chlorinated water from faraway through aging pipes? Yet this is HECO’s business model: a centralized electricity generation system of aged power plants and huge industrial wind factories sending unstable current across long distances through multi-billion-dollar undersea cables.

This is why Governor Abercrombie, HECO and the PUC are pursuing a $10 billion “boondoggle”, as Representative Gil Riviere termed it – Big Wind and the Interisland Cable. The stated purpose of this monstrously inefficient and obsolete technology is to link all the islands but Kauai with undersea cables feeding expensive and environmentally destructive geothermal power from the Big Island, and unreliable industrial wind energy from Lanai and Molokai, to Oahu. All to protect HECO – and all to be funded by Hawaii’s already-burdened electricity customers.

The wind project, which would cover 35 square miles of Molokai and Lanai with industrial turbine towers 45 stories high, would provide only 4-6% of Oahu’s present electricity needs. But at 5% of this cost, HECO could provide rooftop hot water systems to every home on Oahu, and cut residential electricity demand by nearly 30%.

HECO’s Big Wind and Interisland Cable project is the last gasp of a dying dinosaur, a futile attempt to keep an obsolete and expensive utility alive. Instead, HECO should stop limiting rooftop PV, and focus instead on the expansion of a statewide rooftop PV system backed by state-of-the-art firm generation as needed.

And Governor Abercrombie, instead of serving the interests of HECO, mainland energy companies and investment banks, should support renewable, green solar energy, and contribute to Hawaii’s bright energy future rather than pointlessly attempting to block it.

Honolulu Star-Advertiser, July 3, 2012

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