Friday, May 11, 2001

Louis Valenta, photovoltaic department manager at Inter-Island
Solar, and owner Cully Judd, right, stand on the roof of
their office. The two-panel units are water-heating systems,
with the water tank resting atop the one at far right.
The panels on the left are electricity-producing photovoltaics.

electricity lowers
energy costs

A bill would credit isle residents
for unused power made by the
renewable-energy systems
in their homes

By Diana Leone

Before the year is out, Hawaii residents who have renewable-energy systems can run their electric meters backward if they have excess power.

Though electric companies will not pay cash, they will credit customers for electricity they produce but do not use, thus lowering their electric bill.

The concept -- called net energy metering -- is part of a bill on renewable energy that passed the Legislature last week. If signed into law by Gov. Ben Cayetano, it will make Hawaii the 34th state to allow electricity to move both ways.

"It changes the power grid from unidirectional to omnidirectional," said Amory Lovins, a national expert on energy efficiency who was in Honolulu last week.

At Inter-Island Solar Supply, which has sold solar and wind energy-generating technologies since 1975, spirits are high that Hawaii is heading into the energy future.

"Hawaii is in a position to be America's shining example of the use of renewable-energy equipment, mainly because we're blessed with all the natural resources," Inter-Island director Cully Judd said.

"This will encourage consumers to invest in renewable-energy technologies, create jobs and start positioning Hawaii toward energy independence."

The legislation also sets goals for the proportion of renewable energy in the overall power-generating scheme of Hawaii utilities to be 7 percent by the end of 2003, 8 percent by the end of 2005 and 9 percent by the end of 2010.

Those goals disappoint some renewable-energy proponents, like Henry Curtis of Life of the Land. The state already gets 7.5 percent of electricity from renewable sources, including wind, solar, geothermal, bagasse and waste-to-energy. And, Curtis said, the law would allow utilities to count the energy saved by solar water heaters as part of the renewable figure.

Hawaiian Electric spokeswoman Lynne Unemori said it will take an effort to reach the goals because closed sugar cane operations on Maui and Kauai will reduce the state's overall renewables percentage. Combined with projected growth in electric consumption, "9 percent (by 2010) will be a stretch for us," she said.

Hawaiian Electric and its subsidiaries Maui Electric and Hawaii Electric Light distribute 96 percent of electricity used in the state. Kauai Electric has the rest. All the utilities depend on imported fossil fuels for over 90 percent of energy needs.

Unlike other states, Hawaii cannot produce electricity with natural gas or hydropower, or buy a neighboring state's excess electricity.

So a group of renewable-energy supporters -- including Rep. Hermina Morita and Sen. Les Ihara -- is looking at ways to decrease dependence on foreign oil.

Hawaii already has more solar hot water heaters in homes than any other state.

"Photovoltaic systems are certainly the next step for Hawaiian rooftops, and net energy metering will certainly help incentivize consumers to make the investment," Judd said.

Converting sun to electricity still is not cheap -- about $10,000 of equipment for each kilowatt produced, Judd said, and an average home can use 2 to 3 kilowatts.

Still, there are people who are interested in going solar. One Inter-Island customer expects soon to cut the cord to the electric utility entirely.

For those who want to generate their own power and have a utility backup, the details of net metering should be worked out in the next few months, Unemori said. The utility has to get a formal OK from the Public Utilities Commission, find a source for "two-way" meters and work out the contract homeowners will sign.

The proposal allows no more than 10 kilowatts to be produced by the customer.

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