Solar energy is threatening to overload grids in Hawaii, and one utility is telling its solar-minded customers to slow down. Scientific American reports:
Hawaiian Electric Co., or HECO, in September told solar contractors on Oahu that the island’s solar boom is creating problems. On many circuits, the utility said, there’s so much solar energy that it poses a threat to the system and a safety issue. Studies are needed on whether grid upgrades are necessary. If they are, residents adding solar must foot the bill. And starting immediately, contractors and residents would need permission to connect most small rooftop systems to the grid.
The way SA frames it, this is a travesty, an attack on a green energy underdog. Certainly that’s how many greens will see this. But in fact, Hawaii’s experience is exposing one of the biggest hurdles facing green energy. Buried in the article is the real reason why the utility is wary of the sudden rise of solar:
The utility’s grid wasn’t designed for power to go two directions, Rosegg said. The ability for PV to make more power than would be used in a neighborhood creates a situation where there is “overvoltage.” The energy can flow back to the substation, he said, which can lead to reliability problems and possibly surges. And if crews are working in the area, there’s a potential danger.
Solar adopters may not like to hear it, but they still need their local utility. Battery options are lagging behind panel technologies, and homeowners that can afford cheap (low quality) Chinese solar panels may not be able to afford storage systems to power their homes at night.The next step for a place like Oahu will be to update its grid to be able to handle distributed solar producers. But these newer, smarter grids won’t come cheap.