Allowing a greater swath of the population to take advantage of solar energy and save money on their electricity bills is a top priority for Gov. Neil Abercrombie this legislative session.

Rooftop solar arrays have primarily been utilized by residents with the financial means to pay high up-front costs for solar systems, said Abercrombie during his State of the State address on Tuesday. But this could change with a new energy financing program being spearheaded by the Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.

“No longer will a photovoltaic system be only available to those who can afford the significant initial investment,” said Abercrombie during his address. “Instead, this program will allow users to take advantage now, and pay for it over the long run while deriving the immediate benefits.”

Clean energy advocates, such as Blue Planet Foundation, have long championed a program that allows residents to easily pay off renewable energy systems through their electricity bills. And now it looks like Hawaii will soon be joining about two dozen states that have implemented similar measures.

The program could feed Hawaii’s already booming solar industry. But there’s a caveat. There are constraints on how much solar energy the electric utilities say they can accept on their circuits before power disruptions could occur.

To facilitate the program, commonly known as on-bill financing, DBEDT is introducing legislation this year that will help it tap into low-interest rate bond financing. The state would then use that capital, which could initially amount to about $100 million, to provide loans for clean energy technologies.

“We envision helping low and moderate income residents, nonprofits, churches — essentially a largely underserved market,” said Mark Glick, head of the state’s energy office.

The state won’t actually be on the hook for the loans, said Glick. Rather the Public Benefits Fund, a ratepayer-funded energy conservation and efficiency program that holds about $30 million annually, will be used to guarantee the bonds.

“DBEDT is proposing to do it in a smart, sophisticated way,” said Richard Wallsgrove, a program director at Blue Planet Foundation. “The state is not liable for the bonds. They are moving it to the private capital market. The state’s role is just to authorize the Public Benefit Fund to be used for securitization.”

Glick said that the program would likely be used at first to provide loans for solar hot water heating and photovoltaic systems, but it could later be expanded to cover other clean energy technologies. The program could also eventually be extended beyond the underserved to provide a loan system for businesses, he said.

Glick said that the program could be up and running in a year to 18 months.

For residents, the benefits could be multi-fold. Consumers won’t have to navigate private financing if they can’t afford upfront costs of systems, and interest rates would be significantly lower. And residents would pay off their solar system on their electricity bill, ideally at a rate that is below what they would normally be paying for electricity.

The program could also be opened up to renters through leasing programs and residents with shaky credit ratings. Glick said those details would be worked out in the program’s underwriting criteria.

Jeff Mikulina, executive director of Blue Planet Foundation, said that this financing mechanism has always been “the missing link” to opening up the market for a much larger segment of the population.

“Under this system, you just pay for your bill like you have been doing all along, and it’s going to be really cheap,” he said. “All of this is for the greater good of making clean energy more accessible to more people.”

Eventually, it could even be extended to electric vehicles, said Mikulina.

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