HECO: Raising of PV threshold will greatly cut costs

Hawaiian Electric Co. on Friday eased a costly and time-consuming hurdle to installation of home photovoltaic systems by raising the PV threshold on interconnection studies on a circuit and by allowing some of those installing PV to utilize a limited number of studies that HECO is doing.

“This new approach will greatly reduce the number of studies needed and reduce costs to customers,” a HECO news release said.

Hawaiian Electric is changing the PV threshold for an interconnection study – which can cost thousands of dollars – for a residential size 10 kilowatt and smaller PV system to 100 percent of the daytime minimum circuit load. That’s an increase from the current 75 percent, the utility said.

In addition, HECO and subsidiaries Maui Electric Co. and Hawaii Electric Light Co. are doing a limited number of studies on several representative circuits and will apply the results to as many projects as possible on similar circuits, HECO said. Previously, each project requiring a study would have had to go through its own separate study.

The studies are meant to ensure that the circuit can handle the additional PV, which is an intermittent power source. Too much solar power connected to a circuit without protective equipment is dangerous and can result in back-feed that can endanger the lives of utility workers, cause poor power service from flickers to outages and damage home electronics and utility lines and transformers, HECO said.

The interconnection studies, which could cost $3,000, have been a sore point for many PV installers and their customers.

“As our customers add more solar systems, circuits on all islands are reaching the level of PV that requires added care to maintain safety and reliability for all customers,” said Scott Seu, vice president for energy resources and operations at HECO. “But with additional studies and more experience, we are making changes to minimize the times when an interconnection study may be needed and making it as easy as possible for customers in cases when a study is needed.”

Doug McLeod, county energy commissioner, lauded the moves by HECO as a “positive” development. He said Friday that the utility appears to be “intent to do away with interconnection studies for residences whenever possible.”

While the utility may have been conservative in the past, McLeod said that the 100 percent daytime minimum is the highest threshold of which he is aware.

“That’s a good sign,” he added.

It appears that Hawaiian Electric companies are creating a “cohesive solar program . . . taking bits and pieces from each island,” he said, noting that Oahu does not have an interconnection-study threshold.

For most Maui residents seeking to install a PV system, no interconnection study will be needed under the new terms, he said.

Mayor Alan Arakawa, a frequent critic of HECO and MECO, also praised the utility for Friday’s actions and other recent developments.

“In the beginning, it seemed like MECO did not want to hear what people were trying to tell them,” said Arakawa in an email. “But after recent developments, I think we should give them the benefit of the doubt that they’re trying to do business differently, in a way that benefits the community.”

He lauded MECO for improving its systems to utilize 91 percent of wind power produced, up from 72 percent earlier this year, and for its efforts to lower residential utility bills.

“And most recently during some community meetings this week about transmission lines, MECO changed their initial plans after meeting with my office and listening to our ideas,” Arakawa said.

“They are now seriously considering localized storage instead of putting lines above our heads or under our feet,” the mayor continued. “This would be a revolutionary step in the right direction if they do it, and they’ll help us to set an example of how Maui is taking a leadership role in the world of renewable energy and smart-grid technology.”

HECO is advising those considering installing rooftop PV systems to contact the utility before signing a contract or beginning installation. This way, a customer or contractor can get the up-to-date status of the circuit. Depending on how much PV is on the circuit, the utility may perform a supplemental review at the utility’s expense to determine if a more extensive study is required, HECO said.

Customers or contractors must still submit and get approval for a completed net metering application to connect to the grid and get the financial benefits of net metering, HECO said.

Customers or contractors on their behalf should provide a name, address and proposed PV system size in kilowatts to MECO by calling 871-8461, ext. 2445.

“We want to avoid the situation where our customer signs a contract for PV or starts installation and later learns about added costs for studies or circuit upgrades because the circuit already has a high amount of PV,” said Seu.

“As we continue to monitor circuits and do representative studies, we anticipate that it will be possible in the future for even more small systems to go forward without an interconnection requirements study,” he said.

* Lee Imada can be reached at leeimada@mauinews.com.