Smart grid growing pains? Hawaii solar hits a snag

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By: SGN Staff

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By Doug Peeples

SGN News Editor

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As Hawaii's solar installations approach mandated limits in several areas, more and more home and business owners are backing away from plans for solar projects because they could be required to pay for an expensive study to determine if the increased solar load would affect grid stability.

 

The solar business is booming in general, with Q1 2011 growth at 66% over the same time last year, according to a new report from the Solar Energy Industries Association and GTM Research. But Hawaii's dilemma is a perplexing example of how smart grid technologies are struggling to cope with the growing popularity of solar power, and how utilities are trying to deal with the significant challenges of constantly fluctuating amounts of PV power being pumped into the grid.

 

The Hawaiian Electric Company (HECO) has established a 15% threshold (set by the Hawaii PUC) for the amount of solar power than can be added to a single circuit to help ensure electric grid stability, as many other U.S. utilities have done. But Hawaii has the highest per capita quantity of solar power connected to its power grid. And when the 15% percent threshold is reached on Oahu, Maui, Hawaii island, Molokai and Lanai - HECO's customers there can be required to pony up for an expensive study before they can link their solar systems to the grid, reports the Honolulu Star Advertiser newspaper. The price tags for those studies can run from several thousand dollars for a small residential installation to $16,000 and up for larger projects.

 

HECO's concern is whether an installation can be safely connected to the grid without causing reliability problems for other customers on the same circuit. "This is why a technical review - this is not a limit or a cap - may be needed when the amount of PV power on a neighborhood circuit reaches 15%," HECO spokesman peter Rosegg was quoted as saying in the article. The utility also noted that only a few studies have been done.

 

We've also heard that Southwest utilities like San Diego Gas & Electric are struggling with certain feeder lines that have a lot of solar power.

 

Some of Hawaii's solar companies complained that HECO subsidiaries have been inflexible about the 15% rule, while another said in some cases it has been able to avoid the requirement simply by collaborating closely with the utility.

 

"The most common response to running into the specter of triggering a ... study is for the customer to give up on their ambitions for renewable energy," said Todd Georgopapadakos, principal with Honolulu's RevoluSun.

 

And it's not just solar...

Offshore wind farms may also be constrained by what could be a limited supply of high-voltage cable needed to transmit power to mainland utilities. The high-voltage submarine cable market is a tiny market with few buyers and even fewer manufacturers and installers, but demand has grown sharply as islands are being connected to national grids and the number of offshore wind farms increases. A new report from Pike Research says that limited supply chain is unprepared to meet the increased demand and that manufacturers will need to significantly step up production.

 

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