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Pending bills, rules would help 'green' energy


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POSTED: Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Aloha State's energy future is one of the foremost issues in the minds of Hawaii people.

And for good reason — we currently export billions from Hawaii in order to purchase fossil fuels.

The good news is that there are bills in the Legislature and dockets at the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) that could pave the way for a cleaner, greener renewable energy future.

Perhaps the most potentially significant change in policy for Hawaii (which is currently before the PUC) is a concept called “;decoupling.”;

In order to explain it, let's first consider how our utilities make a profit. Up to now, their profits have been linked directly to the amount of electricity sold. The more juice we consume, the more money Hawaiian Electric Co. makes.

This way of doing business hardly encourages conservation. By separating the utility's profits from the sale of electricity (hence “;decoupling”;) both the utility and the consumer have an incentive to promote conservation, renewability and sustainability.

Another change pending is a proposal to streamline the process to sell power to the utility. Called a feed-in tariff, it would obligate the electric utility to purchase power at set prices.

Thus, instead of solely generating energy from its own plants, HECO would purchase power from individuals, companies and organizations who generate power from solar photovoltaics, wind power, biomass, hydropower and geothermal power.

Presumably these rates would be high enough to help overcome the cost disadvantages of renewable energy sources.

Does it mean that any consumer will be able to sell his or her power from their roof photovoltaic system to HECO? Well, we already have something like that now.

Called “;net energy metering,”; it allows consumers who generate their own power using solar photovoltaics, and even wind, to plug into the grid and subtract the amount of electricity produced from their electric bill. What remains is the “;net”; owed on a utility bill.

In Hawaii you are allowed to feed energy back into the grid but the electric utilities will not purchase energy in excess of your overall consumption. When more power is produced than is consumed, the utility meter spins backwards, effectively banking excess electricity production for future credit for consumption later in the day/week/month.

Net energy metering has been a very successful way for homeowners and small businesses to install renewable energy.

The utility believes that net metering can eventually be replaced by the feed-in tariff. The Hawaii Solar Energy Association believes that net energy metering and feed-in-tariffs address different customers and should coexist. In general, smaller systems are better off under net metering and larger systems are better off in a feed- in tariff.

There's also a new technology that HECO would like to roll out (currently pending with the PUC) that would have the electric utility install new, more advanced electric meters.

The new meters would enable the electric company to charge customers based on the time of day the electricity is consumed.

Peter Rosegg, spokesperson for Hawaiian Electric, says the new meters would help promote conservation, as well as result in better service. Since electric demand (and cost) fluctuates throughout the day, customers would be able to adjust their usage based on the electric rates at a given time.

The new meters also would help HECO more quickly locate and diagnose outages.

HECO estimates it would take five years to convert all the existing meters to the new technology.

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Joe Saturnia is president of Island Pacific Energy, a Honolulu- based solar energy company. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).