Concrete Progress is an ongoing series of columns by Peter Brewitt devoted to exploring America’s infrastructure. It is part of Orion’s Reimagining Infrastructure project. Above: a solar radiation map of Oahu, Hawaii’s most populated island, which receives nearly eleven hours of light on the shortest day of the year.
I’m going to try to get my editors to send me to Hawaii. Don’t worry, editors! I don’t plan to go surfing or lounge on the beaches or hike the Na Pali Coast or anything like that. I’d go for the solar panels.
I’ve always assumed that, in the end, the answer to our energy problems will be solar power. The sun is, of course, the ultimate renewable resource—it shines everywhere and if it ever stops, we’ll have more to worry about than our carbon footprints. But the world is not set up for solar power: we make most of our electricity by burning fossil fuels at big power plants. You cannot pipe sunshine from place to place (yet), so how would a world where people make their own electricity from the sun work? The overwhelming leader in solar power, especially rooftop solar power, is Oahu, the most populated island in Hawaii. About eleven percent of the homes in Oahu sport rooftop photovoltaic solar arrays. This is far more than any other place in the United States.
Hawaii, as everyone knows, is a balmy tropical archipelago, which means that, when it’s not raining, they have a lot of sunshine. They get it all year long—ten hours and fifty minutes of light on the winter solstice. At the same time, Hawaii is very far away from the mainland. This makes every non-pineapple product there ridiculously expensive, since they have to be shipped across the Pacific Ocean. As a tourist, you only notice this when you pay an unconscionable price for a sandwich. If you live in Honolulu, though, you find out just how expensive everything is every time you receive your electric bill from the Hawaiian Electric Companies (HECO). HECO is a private utility that supplies nearly all Hawaiians with power. Hawaii doesn’t have oil, or coal, or natural gas, or big enough rivers to make hydroelectricity. It is the most petroleum-dependent state, and its electric bills are the highest in the America. So it’s no surprise that Hawaiians are looking to the sun.
To encourage renewable power, Hawaii started a feed-in tariff program in 2009. What this does is allow people who produce renewable energy to sell it to the grid at an advantageous price. It comes with a twenty-year contract. Hawaiians jumped at the chance, as anyone would who has massive electric bills and free zero-carbon energy bouncing off the roof every day, and Hawaii’s rooftop solar installations doubled every year from 2010. Clean energy, lower bills, personal independence—what’s not to like?
Well, if you’re the utility that runs Hawaiian power, it turns out that there’s a lot not to like. HECO’s grid was not prepared for the sunburst of power running back into the system from its customers’ roofs, and may not have been prepared for the financial losses it’s taking from no longer burning as much oil. Last fall the utility started to make it more difficult for customers to install rooftop solar, demanding studies and structural upgrades for larger solar systems and areas with a lot of installed solar already. It had some fair reasons for this—on a sunny day the influx of power can overwhelm the grid, and being on an island, it’s hard to balance things on the grid the way a larger utility could—and it may have had some unfair ones, like wanting to protect its business. But late last month, the Public Utilities Commission essentially ordered HECO to deal with itself. It needs to upgrade its grid and ready its facilities for the era of Hawaiian solar, and it needs to do it now. Chastened, HECO is now investing in smart meters, storage systems, and the other moves it will need to make for a more sustainable future.
Of course, rooftop solar is not perfect. The materials are difficult to dispose of. Some days are cloudy, and it’s hard to store solar energy to even things out on those days (although people, including HECO, are working on it—watch this space for updates). Regardless, in a place like Hawaii, rooftop solar is far, far better than shipping in 93 percent of your energy from across the ocean. Seven states (in the northeast and the west coast) have legally mandated feed-in tariffs, and a bunch of utilities (mostly in the south and the Midwest) offer them voluntarily. The desert southwest, with the nation’s biggest solar resource, doesn’t have them, though, which is because…actually, I can’t even imagine a good reason why. This stuff works. It’s something individual people can do to help the environment and save money, and I look forward to a time when you don’t have to go to Hawaii to see it.
Peter Brewitt has wondered about infrastructure ever since a flood kept him away from three days of kindergarten. He’s currently at work on a PhD at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he’s researching the ways people restore and remake their environments.