'Solar garden' proposal opens access to savings

Honolulu Star Advertiser - October 1, 2014
By Kathryn Mykleseth

Lawmakers and Hawaiian Electric Co. want to give utility customers who don't own rooftop space the opportunity to take advantage of certain benefits of renewable energy.
The plan is to create community solar farms or "solar gardens" that give people the option to invest in large-scale solar systems and lower their electrical bills.

Community solar will be one option for residents in the near future, HECO said at a legislative briefing Sept. 19. The utility proposed community solar as part of an energy transition plan it filed with the state Public Utilities Commission in August.

The community photovoltaic systems can be beneficial for residents and the utility, said Jim Alberts, HECO senior vice president for customer service, at the briefing.
"We think it serves both purposes. It's a great option for people that don't have a footprint to put PV panels on their roof," Alberts said.

Investors in community solar — from residents in high-rises to renters in single-family homes — would receive credits on their bill.

"We intend to set prices so those who invest in the community get financial benefits but all other customers share in the benefits of lower prices as well," said Peter Rosegg, HECO spokes¬man.
Community solar would allow residents to take advantage of some solar system tax benefits, but the proposed credits would not be the same as those offered to a homeowner who owns a rooftop PV system, HECO said.

Hawaii residents with rooftop solar can get a state tax credit worth 35 percent of the system's cost up to $5,000 and a 30 percent federal tax credit.

"The benefits (for community solar) would be as high as possible but might not match the benefits a homeowner gets for putting solar on his or her roof," Rosegg said. "That homeowner also takes on responsibilities and risks that the community solar participant would not have — maintenance, roof damage, cleaning the system and so on. So it is reasonable that the community solar benefits might not match the homeowner's dollar for dollar."

HECO or its contractor would build and maintain the community solar projects in areas that are not currently saturated with solar.

"We are currently working on several community solar opportunities which are in different phases of development," Rosegg said. "We see community solar as another choice for our customers to participate in Hawaii's clean-energy future by investing in solar energy."

Last session lawmakers introduced Senate Bill 2934 to support community solar. The bill required the PUC to establish prices for community-based renewable energy. It also required the PUC to allow customers to own portions of a renewable-energy facility and sell the energy to the electric utility. The bill didn't make it through the conference committee.

State Sen. Mike Gabbard, one of the lawmakers who sponsored the bill, said he will be working on a similar bill in 2015.

"I was very disappointed we weren't able to get SB 2934, the community-based solar bill, passed last session. I'll be working to get this legislation reintroduced in 2015 and hopefully included in the joint majority legislative package," Gabbard (D, Kapolei-Makakilo) said. "The legislation will look similar to SB 2934, but I've been reaching out to groups such as the Blue Planet Foundation, the Alliance for Solar Choice and the Clean Energy Collective to make updates to the bill."

Jeffrey Mikulina, executive director of Blue Planet Foundation, said community solar is necessary to get more utility customers involved in renewable energy.
"It is a critical opportunity because so many folks in Hawaii can't participate in clean energy today," he said. "I am optimistic that there will be some sort of community solar that will make it through this session. We are all for accessing our indigenous resources. This is going to be priority for us next session. We want to make solar more accessible to more."