4 Lessons for Building a Solar Economy
Photo Credit: Mana Photo/ Shutterstock.com
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The solar era has begun: the industry is booming, prices are dropping, and solar energy at last seems poised to help topple the climate-altering dominance of fossil fuels. But bringing it to the masses won’t be as simple as just soaking up the sun..
To gain a better picture of the challenges to come—and of some possible solutions—electric companies and solar developers throughout the nation are watching Hawaii, which derives a larger fraction of its electricity from the sun than any other state. Homeowners and businesses have led the charge here, something that distinguishes Hawaii from other states at the forefront of solar, like Nevada and Arizona, which depend more heavily on large-scale installations.
The reasons for Hawaii’s solar boom are many. The Polynesians who inhabited the Hawaiian islands before the arrival of Europeans were entirely self-sufficient. But in 2010 it was a different picture: the state generated 86.1 percent of its electricity from imported petroleum. The high price tag on that energy, along with a heightened awareness of the islands’ isolation, has led the state to set an ambitious goal: to derive 40 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2030. It reached 13 percent in 2012.
Hawaii has roughly doubled its solar power capacity every year since 2007, and in 2012 installed more solar than in the last six years combined. It’s not hard to see what’s behind the solar frenzy: With the average electric bill stacking up to roughly $230 per month, Hawaii has the highest electricity rates in the nation by far—nearly twice as high as the second-most expensive state.
Solar has the potential to decrease a homeowner’s electric bill to zero, except for a monthly $18 service charge. Those kinds of savings, combined with federal and local tax credits, mean a Hawaiian homeowner can recoup the cost of a solar investment in just 3.1 years. Even if all the tax credits were removed, it would still take only 8.9 years for a Hawaii solar installation to pay for itself.
But so much solar has also created problems. Each island’s electric grid is isolated from the others, and therefore less stable than a typical mainland grid, particularly when unpredictable solar energy enters the picture. But solutions are beginning to emerge. Better energy storage systems and weather-prediction technology are being developed to stabilize those grids. Meanwhile, the Hawaii legislature is poised to reduce solar tax credits, which some say are too expensive. In short, Hawaii is solving problems today that other states may encounter tomorrow.
Hawaii’s high rate of solar adoption makes it a likely picture of California’s future, according to Elaine Sison-Lebrilla, renewable energy program manager at the Sacramento Municipal Utility District. The district is collaborating with the Hawaiian Electric Company to develop solutions to many of the obstacles it’s encountered.
“They’ll see these problems much sooner than us,” Sison-Lebrilla said, “and the hope is that there will be lessons learned from them and we’ll be prepared.”
Obstacle 1: More power than the grid can handle
“What about cloudy days?” That’s the perennial question for an industry striving to improve the efficiency of solar technology. But it’s too much power, not too little, that’s the problem in Hawaii.
“The system was not designed originally to have energy flowing two ways,” explained Peter Rosegg, spokesman for the Hawaiian Electric Company, or HECO, which provides electricity to 95 percent of the Hawaiian population. “Now all of a sudden you have rooftop solar and most of them are sending power back over these [lines] during much of the day because they’re producing more than they can use.”