Hawaii and Vermont: Paths to growing renewables

The recent growth of distributed energy generation in the U.S. has been phenomenal, but not without growing pains. Every state has a unique story about its path to a more diverse energy portfolio. Hawaii and Vermont provide good examples of the challenges community power advocates face. But, they provide a blueprint for meeting those challenges as well.

Hawaii

Hawaii made history in June, when Governor David Ige signed into law Act 97 of 2015 (House Bill 623). This is the first statewide 100 percent renewable requirement. Hawaii’s lawmakers voted 74-2 to establish the target of 100 percent renewable electricity by 2045. The Blue Planet Foundation played an active role in developing this monumental legislation. Blue Planet led a broad student-based grassroots effort to support the law, and these efforts paid off.

Hawaii’s bill specifies that by 2045, all of the state’s electricity needs be met by renewable sources, specifically, solar, wind and geothermal. The legislation also sets very specific benchmarks as well for interim dates:

  • 15% of its net electricity sales by December 31, 2015
  • 30% of its net electricity sales by December 31, 2020
  • 40% of its net electricity sales by December 31, 2030
  • 70% of its net electricity sales by December 31, 2040.

Henk Rogers, president of Blue Planet Foundation, was quoted saying: “This week we put an expiration date on fossil fuel use. Hawaii is sending a signal to the world that 100 percent renewable energy isn’t just a vision, it’s a commitment.”

The legislation encountered little resistance for a number of reasons. Hawaii needs to import all of its fuel from the mainland. As such, it’s electricity rates are approximately 34 cents per kilowatt/hour, nearly three times the national average. This makes it a prime market for energy sources that do not require fossil fuel. As an island state, it is more vulnerable than most of the mainland to the threat of rising sea levels.

On the same day that Governor Ige signed the 100 percent renewable energy law, he also signed Act 100 (SB1050). This legislation allows Hawaiians to benefit from community solar projects. that enables community solar for Hawaii for the first time. About this development, Representative Lee has said, “We’ve seen hundreds of people who say, ‘We want to take advantage of these [federal and local solar] tax credits before they go away but we don’t have a roof.’ This would change that.”

But it is not just renters and community groups that are interested in community solar. Hawaii’s main utility HECO, has conceived plans to introduce its own community solar projects.

However, these plans hit a serious snag when its applications to the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission (PUC) for eight solar farms were either deferred or denied by the PUC. The PUC said that the utility had not sufficiently addressed the commission’s questions and concerns. Hawaii State Senator Lorraine R. Inouye maintained in an article that the PUC was within its rights to deny HECO’s request due to insufficient information. But she nonetheless urged the PUC to move quickly on HECO’s applications once HECO addresses its concerns. HECO has recently proposed a new pilot program, which would use the combined 260 kilowatts of existing solar capacity from the Waiau and Campbell Industrial Park power plants; if the program is approved, Hawaiian Electric would remove those plants from the calculation of electric rates that all customers pay.

In this case, HECO finds itself on the other side of a solar delay. In February, the utility came under fire for refusing to interconnect home solar installations to the grid. This decision created a backlog of about 5000 residents who had already purchased and installed their solar panels, but who happened to apply for interconnection after October of 2014.

Complicating the situation with HECO is a proposed merger between that utility and the Florida-based utility NextEra, a proposal which has sparked strong opposition. Governor Ige has become one of its most powerful opponents, stating at a press conference that NextEra “wasn’t a great fit” for the goal of making Hawaii’s energy 100 percent renewable by 2045. Another commentator asserts that “the consequences could be catastrophic for Hawaii” if the merger takes place. So the proposal at this point is by no means a “done deal”.

Vermont

Vermont has long cherished its image as a pristine, rural haven in the modern world, as this study describes. The state is notable for its relative lack of large power plants, as well as its reliance upon renewable energy sources such as hydropower. As recently as 2013, Vermont received about 70 percent of its electricity from the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant, but after years of protests, the plant was shut down at the end of 2014. In 2011, during the first year of his first term, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin directed the Department of Public Service to lead a multi-agency initiative to complete the state’s first Comprehensive Energy Plan (CEP) since the late 1990s. The plan was adopted the same year. The CEP sets a target of obtaining 90 percent of Vermont’s total energy (including transportation and heating) from renewable sources by 2050. The program builds upon the Sustainably Priced Energy Development (SPEED) Program, enacted in 2005.

Vermont has adopted many policies to pursue this goal. One such policy relates to the state’s net metering program. It is called the “solar adder.” This requires utilities to value all solar power produced by a solar array at $0.20 per kilowatt/hour. (The standard non-solar utility rate in the state averages around $0.15/kWh.) The higher rate functions as a bonus credit to the user’s account. This also means that the user can still get to a zero energy bill (excepting basic charges and surcharges) with a somewhat smaller PV system than would be necessary in other states that don’t offer the solar adder.

Group net metering is another policy that Vermont has adopted. This allows solar homes and businesses within the same utility district to share the credits of a single renewable energy system. For example, a PV system might be built on one property, but the electricity credits from net metering would be shared among the members of the entire group. Vermont has been one of a handful of states to adopt this program.

In May of last year, U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz announced that Rutland, Vermont, was right on track in its plans to transform itself into the “Solar Capital of New England.” This ambitious project, begun when utility Green Mountain Power (GMP) merged with Central Vermont Public Service in 2012. The utility conceived the project to be “a shining example of how fostering investments in renewable energy can help grow a more vibrant local economy”.

The cornerstone of this effort is the Stafford Hill Solar Farm. This 2MW microgrid is the first in the country to utilize only solar power and batteries. It is also the first known solar storage project located on a “brownfield” (a site which has been compromised by contaminants). The 7,700 panels could power up to 365 homes. If the grid’s power goes out, the microgrid contains enough battery storage to enable it to function as a self-sustaining unit. Rutland is already considering other potential sites for microgrids. The solar plans for Rutland are now so ambitious that GMP has stopped calling it the (future) “Solar Capital of New England,” and has now dubbed it “Energy City of the Future”.

Hawaii and Vermont both have situational challenges and energy histories that set them apart from most other states, and these have led them to become pioneers in the adoption of renewable energy, including community solar. However, these states are forerunners, not outliers. As more states enact renewable energy programs, those states should look closely at Hawaii and Vermont as examples of how to proceed toward renewable energy goals.

Stay informed on solar news
& action opportunities:

Stay informed on solar