- Hawaiian Electric (HECO) hasn't seen a dramatic dip in applications to interconnect rooftop solar systems despite the shelter-in-place policy announced by Gov. David Ige at the end of March, the company said in a filing with state regulators last week.
- The company received 40% more applications between March 5 and April 15 than the same period last year, it told the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission (PUC). In total, 1,420 applications were filed with the utility from the beginning of the year through April 15, also an increase over 2019 figures.
- The filing came in response to a letter submitted to the commission by Hawaii distributed energy resource groups in early April, outlining various measures to expedite interconnection processes and support the distributed solar sector with an eye to economic recovery amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The groups, which include the Distributed Energy Resources Council, Hawai'i PV Coalition, and Hawaii Solar Energy Association, said in their letter that the distributed solar industry — which employs thousands of workers — could help Hawaii recover from the economic turmoil caused by the pandemic.
Streamlining HECO's interconnection processes could help customers complete installations and shrink their electric bills, they said.
They recommended that distributed systems below 25 kW be allowed to operate once they are installed and that certain safety features are implemented immediately, rather than after a lengthy permitting process. They also asked that HECO be required to craft a six-month plan to expand interconnection processes.
In its response, the utility noted that solar contractors are continuing to work and building inspections are ongoing — and if these conditions continue, the pandemic should not significantly hamper the installation of distributed solar systems in the near term. And while shelter-in-place policies require rooftop solar salespeople to work from home, "based on the data … the company has not yet seen any dramatic decreases in application volumes" since stay-at-home policies came into effect on March 25.
In fact, Hawaiian Electric said it received 27 applications more for the week of April 8 than the week of April 1.
Hawaii's lockdown has been extended through the end of May and though rooftop solar salespeople are in the challenging position of working from home, prospective customers are also home-bound, "perhaps with time to consider this valuable home improvement," Peter Rosegg, a spokesman for HECO, said in an email.
"We hope solar salespeople continue working with near-closing and strong-prospect potential customers to keep the applications flowing. We're committed to keeping application processing on schedule and told solar contractors we are flexible about their meeting deadlines, given the circumstances," he added.
In its filing, the company listed some of the measures it is taking to ensure interconnection processes are smooth — for instance, remotely reviewing applications and loosening deadlines for installations to be completed. But it pushed back on some of the DER groups' suggestions.
Speeding up the process such that customers can activate their systems before the utility and building department ensure that they have been installed correctly could create safety risks, HECO said. Moreover, if any issues were to be identified with the system after it is activated, there "would be little to no motivation for the contractor (who may have been fully paid at that point) and the customer to bring the system into compliance."
And any six-month plan to rapidly expand interconnection processes "would require the company to expend resources that are not currently funded," during a time when the focus is on keeping costs low, the utility said. Instead, it proposed that possible longer-term changes to interconnection processes be considered at a later stage of the PUC's distributed energy resources proceeding.
The company did, however, agree to begin changing out revenue meters as soon as a distributed system customer receives conditional approval to build, rather than swapping them at the end of the interconnection process.
"Changing out the revenue meter once the customer is approved to install should allow for quicker approval to energize systems. The Company proposes this option as a permanent change to the interconnection process, and not just a change during the COVID-19 crisis," according to the filing.
"We disagree with HECO's characterization that we are 'narrowly focused' and that some of our proposals are 'unrealistic and unreasonable,'" Will Giese, executive director of the Hawaii Solar Energy Association, said in an emailed statement.
"HECO's one offered solution is a policy that they'd originally had in the days of old [net energy metering], which, while certainly helpful, is not nearly enough. The DER industry is a part of Hawaii's clean energy future, and COVID-19 is forcing us to tackle that problem in new and innovative ways. We commit to coming to the table with an open mind, and we hope the same for the utility," he added.
Data from the first quarter of the year may not adequately reflect the full-blown effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, Marco Mangelsdorf, president of ProVision Solar, told Utility Dive, since stay-at-home orders didn't kick in until the end of that period. However, the concerns raised by the distributed solar advocates could be more reflective of real-time impacts on the sector.
"Eventually, the lag will show in the data, and Q2 … will be less rosy than the numbers indicated in the data so far this year," he said.