Bill to expand solar power shelved

Honolulu Star Advertiser - April 29, 2014
Alan Yonan

Supporters of a bill that would have allowed condominium owners and others to power their homes with electricity generated at community-based solar facilities said Monday they were disappointed the bill was scuttled by lawmakers in the rush to meet procedural deadlines at the Legislature last week.

A conference committee made up of members of the Senate and House energy committees failed to reach agreement on the bill (SB 2934) aimed at opening up the solar market to a wider group of Hawaii residents.

One of the bill's strongest supporters, the Blue Planet Foundation, said SB 2934 had support from all quarters and that it appeared to be on track to win approval from the conference committee before a Friday night internal deadline.

"The bill did not require any budget appropriation. So it is somewhat vexing that it died at the end of the process when bills were being released, or not released, by the chairs of the money committees," said Richard Walls­grove, Blue Planet Foundation's program director.

The bill was one of 11 being considered Friday night by the conference committee chaired by Sen. Mike Gabbard (D, Kapo­lei-Maka­kilo) and Rep. Chris Lee (D, Kai­lua-Wai­ma­nalo).

"Both Rep. Lee and I were strongly in support of getting the community-based renewables bill passed this session," Gabbard said. "It would have been another step forward in keeping our state a national leader on solar. Unfortunately, the bill got tripped up by the money committees. It's dead for this session, but both Rep. Lee and I are committed to introducing it again next year, hopefully as part of the joint majority package."

However, Sen. David Ige, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said the bill did not move forward because his office did not receive notice from the conference committee chairmen that the two sides had reached agreement on a final draft. "I supported it. I was a co-sponsor," Ige said. "We were told that they were close, but we never got the notice that the conferees were in agreement."

The community-based renewable energy program, as it is referred to in the bill, would have allow utility customers to buy a stake in an off-site solar or wind facility and have them receive credit for the power generated.

At least 10 other states have already passed bills to act on the community renewables concept, according to the Blue Planet Foundation. Community renewable energy facilties would be particularly valuable on Oahu, where there is an above-average number of high-rise condominiums that can't support on-site solar panels. Also, there are many neighborhoods where additional PV installations are being limited by high penetration of solar panels, according to Blue Planet.

Another bill (HB 1943) that would have directed state regulators to commission a study on modernizing the electrical grids of Hawaii's two utilities was approved in a watered-down version after the section authorizing funding for the study was removed by the conference committee.

The bill was motivated by complaints from some customers of Hawaiian Electric Co. that the utility is too slow in allowing more PV systems to connect to the grid in neighborhoods already saturated with solar energy.

"It's very disappointing they're not being given the resources and the direction to do this," said Leslie Cole-Brooks, executive director of the Hawaii Solar Energy Association. "We need experts to come in and provide a fresh look to some of the problems we're experiencing with saturation issues."

Conferees also agreed on a bill to extend the state's so-called barrel tax through 2030. The tax of $1.05 per barrel of oil brought in $27 million in revenue in fiscal year 2013. The Legislature voted to increase the tax in 2010 to $1.05 a barrel from 5 cents a barrel with the intent of raising money for a variety of special funds to support energy, food security and environmental remediation. However, lawmakers amended the bill so that 60 percent of the revenue would go to the general fund to help balance the budget.

Lawmakers were unable to win support this session for a proposal to revamp the bill so that more of the revenue would to go the original objectives.