Hawaii ‘going where no state has gone before’ on renewables

wind turbine july 3 elp

When it comes to renewable energy, "we are going to boldly go where no state has ever gone," Hawaii Public Utilities Commission member Thomas Gorak told an Energy Information Administration conference July 12 in Washington, D.C.

Gorak, a former PUC legal advisor who was appointed to the Hawaii PUC on an interim basis earlier this month, was alluding to the state’s planned 30-year transition to 100 percent renewable power. The Star Trek reference drew laughter from the large audience for a panel discussion on state level issues affecting renewable energy development.

Gorak was joined on the panel by John Williams, the director of analysis at the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) and Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) Vice President of State Affairs Sean Gallagher.

"We are a leader in renewable integration" in Hawaii. "We really didn't have a choice," Gorak said. Each island in Hawaii is its own isolated grid, Commissioner Gorak said, adding that Hawaii faces high electricity prices, and will still lean on fossil fuels for a number of years.

Moving toward such a deep penetration of renewables requires give-and-take with all the stakeholders because they are all are affected by the issues, Gorak said.

While the state of New York isn’t yet shooting for 100 percent renewables, its new Clean Energy Standard foresees going with 50 percent clean and renewable energy by 2030.

The New York State Public Service Commission is examining a number of policies that touch upon everything from rooftop solar to offshore wind energy to zero emission credits for “distressed” nuclear reactors, Williams said.

New York’s “Reforming the Energy Vision” (REV) program includes the NY-Sun Incentive Program, which is designed to help bring affordable solar electric power to 150,000 new homes and businesses by 2020. The state’s ultimate goal is to move toward solar that’s cost competitive but subsidy-free, Williams said.

Solar energy, both rooftop and utility-scale, continues to be enjoy dramatic growth, said SEIA’s Gallagher. Solar accounted for 1 percent of the nation’s electricity during the past year. While that doesn’t sound like a lot, it represents a multi-fold expansion in recent years.

The SEIA official also noted that solar power already employs more people national than some traditional energy fields like coal mining.

Although some solar tax credits are scheduled to gradually be retired in the coming years, SEIA expects the Environmental Protection Agency Clean Power Plan will be a driver for solar growth in the South and Midwest. Although the EPA carbon reduction plan is under appeal in the courts, it is already affecting electric utility planning, Gallagher said.

“Transmission is very difficult because it's very fragmented," said SEIA’s Gallagher. Proposed electric transmission lines typically cross multiple jurisdictions.

Everyone from state and federal natural resource agencies to local county governments can have a say, and the process is protracted, Gallagher said.

Nevertheless new transmission lines are getting built to serve wind and solar power resources, especially in the West, Gallagher said.

The distribution system in New York is currently a “one-way highway," Williams said. Nevertheless, New York State officials are looking to address “barriers” to further renewable energy expansion, Williams added.

When asked, Williams said that various “net metering” discussions in New York have proven very collaborative. Gorak noted that Hawaii has much experience with net metering.

Over 40 states currently have some type of net metering available, Gallagher said. While disputes have emerged in some states over cost “shifting” associated with net metering distributed generation, Gallagher said it is important for states to weigh both costs and benefits.

SEIA also thinks battery storage has an important role in expanding the footprint of solar energy, Gallagher said.

The panel discussion was moderated by the director of EIA’s electricity, renewables and uranium statistics office, Stan Kaplan.

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