Hawaii is on its way to having the greenest grid in the nation.
The state legislature sent a bill to the governor’s desk this week that moves the renewable portfolio standard (RPS) up to 100 percent by 2045 — which means that all electricity provided by the electric companies will have to come from renewable sources like solar and wind. Nationwide, electricity generation makes up about a third of all carbon emissions.
“We’ll now be the most populated set of islands in the world with an independent grid to establish a 100 percent renewable electricity goal,” State Senator Mike Gabbard (D) told ThinkProgress in an email. “Through this process of transformation we can be the model that other states and even nations follow. And we’ll achieve the biggest energy turnaround in the country, going from 90 percent dependence on fossil fuels to 100 percent clean energy.”
Gov. David Ige (D) has until May 15 to veto or sign the bill. If he fails to act by then, the bill will automatically become law. Hawaii would be the first state in the nation to have an RPS at 100 percent. Its previous RPS called for 40 percent renewables by the end of 2030.
Hawaii already has the greatest solar penetration in the nation. One out of every eight homes in Hawaii has solar, and roughly 10 percent of the state’s electricity comes from solar, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). Another quarter of Hawaii’s electricity comes from geothermal sources, according to the federal Energy Information Agency (The EIA does not track residential solar electricity generation).
Hawaii’s dramatic shift to renewable energy over the past few years has been largely driven by the island state’s high electricity prices. Hawaii gets most of its electricity from oil-fired power plants, and all the oil is imported. Electricity there can cost three times as much as the national average, Gabbard said.
But the transition to solar has not been without problems.
HECO, the Hawaiian Electric Companies, which comprises the state’s three major utilities, has come under fire for not integrating solar quickly enough. Some residents who have installed solar have had to wait as long as 18 months for the utility to interconnect their systems to the grid. In March, HECO sent some customers a notice that interconnections would be indefinitely postponed, but the Public Service Committee immediately fired back, telling the utility it has an “affirmative duty” to interconnect customers.
Without storage, utilities are hard-pressed to balance all the energy widespread solar can generate.
SolarCity co-founder Lydon Rive said his company plans to offer solar plus storage in Hawaii next year, allowing homeowners to go completely off the grid, as E&E News reported this week. The new Tesla battery can serve as a “hedge against bad policy outcomes,” Rive said.
A driving factor in the proliferation of low-cost solar has been a policy known as net metering, in which customers are credited for the electricity they put back on the grid, through, for instance, rooftop solar. But the practice has been heavily targeted by utilities in some states, such as Arizona, that claim solar allows customers to avoid paying their fair share of grid costs. High interconnection fees and monthly surcharges are just two other ways utilities can discourage residential solar investment — “bad policy outcomes” from a solar perspective.
Even before Hawaii’s legislature passed the RPS bill, its electricity sector was already in flux.
In December, NextEra Energy, a Florida-based utility company, agreed to buy all three of HECO’s electric utilities, for about $6 billion. NextEra is expected to invest heavily in transmission and distribution infrastructure, including a $600 million undersea cable connecting the Oahu and Maui power grids, as ThinkProgress reported.
The new RPS will mean NextEra inherits a system that is expected to be a testing ground for new technologies and methods of transmission in the coming decades.
“NextEra has much more technical expertise and resources than HECO, so in the grid modernization area, NextEra brings a lot more to the table than our existing utility,” Gabbard said. “Ultimately, it’s about what’s in the best interest of the people of Hawai`i. It’s very important for NextEra to be clear that they support continuing customer choice as it applies to PV.”