The energy company didn't handle 21st-century solar power well, so she paid $400 electric bills.
Her neighbors are paying $18 a month. Joyce Villegas has been paying almost $400 a month for over three years because of delays from Hawaiian Electric, the state's utility company.
Solar energy is finally becoming affordable. People love it. Especially in Hawaii.
In fact, The New York Times decided to do a whole story about what's going on in Hawaii.
But some people in Hawaii haven't been able to enjoy the benefits of solar power until recently.
This is Joyce Villegas, a resident of Hawaii who requested solar panels from Hawaiian Electric, the state's energy company, over three years ago.
All her neighbors, who get their electricity from solar power, pay much less per month than she does.
This might seem like the classic story of a big mean energy company screwing over a little old lady.
But in this case, Hawaiian Electric isn't a villain as much as it is a company afraid of change.
When Hawaiian Electric realized how many people were opting for solar, they realized two things:
- Their infrastructure and grid might not be able to handle the changes.
- And, more importantly, they were afraid that they'd stop making money altogether.
Hawaiian Electric put a stop to new solar installations until they could figure out a way to handle the energy traffic on the grid and a way to make a profit. That's fair, right? Any company needs to be able to profit to survive.
But ... they continued collecting nearly $400 per month in electric bills from people like Joyce to make up for the fact that solar-powered customers were paying so much less.
You see, Hawaii has the highest energy costs in the entire United States.
They also have the most sun. So they're at the forefront of solar technology.
Not only is solar energy more affordable, but some of the time, the people whose homes run on the solar grid are actually producing more energy than they use, which the utility company compensates them for.
Electric utility grids were originally designed to send power one direction — from the power plant into homes and buildings.
But solar power on the grid moves both ways.
When you don't use your solar energy, you send it back to the grid. The utility company's job includes maintaining that energy grid.
Upgrading the grid to handle solar energy being sent back to the utility is expensive. If you don't upgrade it, it can degrade your infrastructure, causing brownouts, blackouts, and other problems.
And this is a legitimate reason for Hawaiian Electric to be concerned about the increasing popularity of solar panels.
But that's not exactly what had them stalling on Joyce's solar panel installations...
As more people rely on solar energy, the energy companies make less money.
Hypothetically, say everyone switches to solar. If no one is paying the utility company, if they aren't needed to produce electricity but just to maintain the grid, they go bankrupt. If they go bankrupt, no one manages and sustains the grid.
Hawaiian Electric took too much time to adapt and a court ruled that they had to start allowing solar installations again.
They've promised to get 90% of the backlog out immediately.
Joyce Villegas finally got her solar panels approved. They're installing them soon.
The future is now. And utility companies will have to adapt to a new business model.
We are moving to a future where utility companies become storage centers, taking the extra solar power we don't use and redistributing it at night. Energy companies won't be generators as much as distributors, and that will take some getting used to as we become our own generators of clean energy.
Read more in The New York Times story.