State investigates illegal photovoltaic systems

With Oahu in a solar power crunch, homeowners are going rogue, turning their panels on without permission from Hawaiian Electric Co.

It’s a problem that popped up when HECO adopted stricter rules in September.

HECO says photovoltaic systems connected without approval are dangerous, but six months after acknowledging the issue, nothing has been done to try and stop it. HECO says it still wants to educate the public and work with the solar companies, even though the rules are clear on when customers are allowed to turn their PV systems on.

The state’s Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs is investigating illegal PV systems, because they have already caused damage in some homes.

“Your electronic equipment in your household can be burnt out and we’re seeing some of that already on Molokai,” said Jeffrey Ono, executive director of the Consumer Advocacy Branch of the DCCA.

When asked what can be done, Ono said, “because it’s a potential safety issue, (Hawaiian Electric) could cut off power to that individual’s home.”

The Hawaii Solar Energy Association estimates there are more than a thousand of what they call “rogue solar systems.” It says in addition to being dangerous, the procedure is also unfair to the companies and customers who do the right thing and wait for approval.

“They’re waiting and someone is connected, like your neighbor, and you see your neighbor and you wonder, ‘How did you get online and I’m waiting in line?’ It’s just not fair,” said Leslie Cole-Brooks, HSEA executive director.

HECO couldn’t say the number of rogue systems out there, but admits it’s a problem and no one breaking the rules has been punished.

“We want to make sure we understand the situation fully before we jump into anything,” said Darren Pai, HECO spokesman. “That’s why we’re taking the time to identify the systems that are out there… I don’t want to get into the specifics or the mechanics of how we go about doing this.”

Pai says HECO would prefer that solar companies and customers cooperate rather than HECO having to shut them down.

“We want to look at their systems and look at how they’re configured and understand how much PV is in their particular neighborhood,” Pai said.

The state said it can move forward with the investigation after a homeowner complains, but that’s unlikely to happen unless HECO actually threatens homeowners with shutting down their PV systems.

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