On September 6,  the Hawaiian Electric Company (HECO) announced steps to enable more rooftop solar systems to connect to the grid. The Interstate Renewable Energy Council, Inc. (IREC) commends HECO’s announcement and its path-charting model for renewable energy integration.  Since 2010, IREC has been collaborating extensively with Hawaiian utilities and stakeholders on interconnection reform.

“The utility’s new framework will allow more people in Hawai‘i to connect rooftop solar systems more quickly and at lower costs,” said IREC’s attorney Tim Lindl.  “The changes outlined by HECO will enhance the State’s reputation as a shining light for solar energy.”

Solar panels HECO
Copyright 2000 by Hawaiian Electric Company, Inc., all rights reserved.

That reputation is well deserved; the amount of solar on the Islands’ electric grids has nearly doubled every year since 2008.  Hawai’i has also eclipsed all but one other state in the country in terms of solar watts installed per capita, according to IREC’s 2012 U.S. Solar Market Trends Report.

While this exponential surge of interest in solar energy is helping the State realize its impressive renewable energy goals, it has also triggered an unprecedented number of interconnection requests for HECO. This high number of requests has caused problems for both the utility and the solar industry.  The utility must conduct an engineering review for each home or business that wishes to install solar generation.  This review ensures the new system will not cause undue problems for nearby customers or the utility’s equipment.  However, as the amount of rooftop solar in an area increases, the engineering review needed becomes more detailed and complex, eventually requiring what is called an Interconnection Requirements Study (IRS).  An IRS can drain utility resources, cause long delays and increase costs for individual projects.

Moreover, an IRS may show that installing solar panels on a particular roof will require certain upgrades to HECO’s equipment.  In Hawai‘i, the costs of these upgrades are mostly borne by the home or business owners installing the solar panels.  These upgrade costs can prohibit projects from moving forward in certain locations or even in entire neighborhoods.

HECO’s announcement shows the utility has gained sufficient experience with rooftop solar to revise when and how its engineering reviews are conducted.  The changes will allow more systems to connect to the grid more quickly without sacrificing safety, reliability or power quality.

In addition, the utility’s announcement implies it may revise the way in which it divides the costs for upgrades to its system. While the utility already allows for the costs of upgrades to be shared by more than one project, the projects must go through the detailed and time-consuming IRS to qualify for cost sharing.  The utility’s new approach promises to allow projects to share costs that have not undergone an IRS.

HECO’s announcement is an important breakthrough. “This announcement is truly cutting edge,” said Lindl.  “Both the Hawai‘i Public Utilities Commission and HECO continue to show thought leadership on integrating large amounts of solar energy.”