Hawaii Sitting On The Lid Of A Solar Explosion

Hawaii's tremulous effort to embrace solar energy—but not too fast—may be holding at bay an explosion of rooftop solar in the island state, according to experts in data and adoption behavior.
"Whether it’s birth control in Andean Highland villages or iPhones there’s similar patterns in almost any innovation," said Brewster McCracken, the CEO of the Austin-based utility-research institute Pecan Street. "And it starts with a few who adopt. It’s when that second group that consists of influencers in the community adopt that you’ll go from 5, 6, 7, 10 percent, and when you get to 15 percent you go to 60 percent really fast."
The number of Hawaiian Electric Company customers who have adopted rooftop solar reached 17 percent at the start of this year, HECO announced in January. But the utility has slowed projects that it says threaten the stability of the grid, and last year the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission replaced a popular net-metering program with one purported to more carefully control costs and strains to the grid.
HECO began slowing rooftop solar at least three years ago, saying rapid adoption was threatening grid stability. At the time, former Energy Sec. Steven Chu called HECO's claim "another bullshit argument," and said solar adoption doesn't threaten grid stability until it approaches 20% At the time HECO said solar penetration had reached 11% in some markets. Now it's approaching Chu's 20 percent.
"There’s an interesting implication to that," McCracken said last week at the 2016 Surge Summit sponsored by the Illinois Science and Energy Innovation Foundation in Chicago. "We know from all these other human endeavors that when you get to 10 to 15%, you suddenly get to 60% really fast. Which is I think one of the reasons why the West Coast and Hawaiian utilities are kind of nervous about rooftop solar, because they understand these implications."
McCracken drew on the theory of the diffusion of innovations, articulated by communications professor Everett Rogers in 1962, which observes that the adoption of innovation depends on the communication between participants in a social network.
"The first people who line up outside the store to buy the newest thing, they typically don’t have (a lot) of influence, but they do feed the education level of the next group," McCracken said. It's adoption by the next group—people who are influential in their social networks—that spurs mass adoption.
"If they say something’s good, or if people learn about it through those forums, they are more likely to get broad penetration."
People tasked with transforming the nation's relationship to energy use have been studying these social effects, hoping to leverage them to increase adoption of clean energy and energy-efficient behaviors.
"What the people around you do influences you in two ways," said Reuven Sussman, who studies energy-efficiency behavior programs for the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. "One way, you get information from what other people do. You learn from what they do. The other is you get some social pressure. There’s a desire to sort of fit in with your social group and do what others are doing for that reason."
That social pressure engulfs more people after the second wave of adopters take up a technology and spread the word.
"People who are the most passionate about these topics are not always the ones that are the best influencers," Sussman said, but when opinion leaders adopt, they can readily become energy champions. "People that you know within your social network are generally more credible and trustworthy and likable. They’re in your network for some reason."
Solar energy promises to free Hawaii from an expensive dependence on imported fuel oil, and the state plans to source 100 percent of its energy from renewables by 2045. It may already have enough energy champions to get there, and the numbers are mounting in California and Arizona too. Utilities hope to control the pace of adoption to preserve grid stability, but they also must adapt, McCracken said, as the pace quickens and the pressure grows.
"The grid will still be necessary, but you’ll be making a lot less money and you’ll be creating a lot of havoc from an engineering perspective," he said. "It does create a lot of havoc, but it’s coming anyway."

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