Rooftop solar is increasingly popular with residents in Hawaii, in part because the rates they pay for electricity rank among the highest in the nation. But not only has the Hawaiian electric utility failed to adapt its business model to the realities of its evolving marketplace, it has also been actively fighting what seems to be inevitable – a transformation similar to those experienced by the telecommunications and cable monopolies due to the influx of new competitors. By levying steep fees on solar homeowners and barring new residential installations in some areas, the Hawaiian utility may be irreparably damaging its relationship with its customers.
Despite the Hawaiian Electric Company’s efforts to stem the economic threat of solar power and delay the necessary upgrades to its grid, the state’s public utilities commission has stepped in to protect Hawaiian residents, ordering the utility to approve its unacceptable backlog of solar applications. Meanwhile, there are plenty of companies ready to help these disgruntled customers avoid the utility’s grid altogether. James Whitcomb, chief executive of Haleakala Solar, has proven ready to help customers break their reliance on the utility’s network: “I’ve actually taken people right off the grid. Like with digital photography, this is inevitable.” Perhaps its time for America’s utilities to take a leadership role in advancing solar and wind energy – together with a more innovative, longer view of its markets – for the benefit of all involved.
HONOLULU — Allan Akamine has looked all around the winding, palm tree-lined cul-de-sacs of his suburban neighborhood in Mililani here on Oahu and, with an equal mix of frustration and bemusement, seen roof after roof bearing solar panels.
Mr. Akamine, 61, a manager for a cable company, has wanted nothing more than to lower his $600 to $700 monthly electric bill with a solar system of his own. But for 18 months or so, the state’s biggest utility barred him and thousands of other customers from getting one, citing concerns that power generated by rooftop systems was overwhelming its ability to handle it.
Only under strict orders from state energy officials did the utility, the Hawaiian Electric Company, recently rush to approve the lengthy backlog of solar applications, including Mr. Akamine’s.
It is the latest chapter in a closely watched battle that has put this state at the forefront of a global upheaval in the power business. Rooftop systems now sit atop roughly 12 percent of Hawaii’s homes, according to the federal Energy Information Administration, by far the highest proportion in the nation.
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