For anyone in sales, there are two existential questions that need to be posed and answered: what’s the market for what one is peddling and how much of a share of that market can one expect to capture? As the once thriving Hawaii rooftop solar photovoltaic (PV) industry in the state painfully contracts, businesses like mine and others are being forced to seriously ponder those two questions.

How can it be in a state where there’s by far more installed solar capacity per home and business than any other place in the nation, and which is still so dependent on imported fossil fuels, that our solarcoaster is slowing to crippling crawl?

How can it be in a state that’s pledged itself to 100 percent renewable energy in power generation by 2045, the first in the country to make such a commitment, that the bottom is dropping out of the solar market?

How can it be in a state that hosts no shortage of high-brow energy conferences every year, with bright and visionary deep thinkers who expound on cutting edge ideas and technologies, that the corpus of solar PV is itself bleeding its way to its practical demise?

Rooftop solar panels / photovoltaic system installed on adjacent building near Ala Moana Center. 10 june 2015. photograph Cory Lum/CIvil Beat

Rooftop photovoltaic panels like these near Ala Moana Center were spreading fast until the state ended some lucrative incentives.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Or to paraphrase the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz as she was melting: “What a world, what a world. Who would have thought that beautiful rooftop solar would be destroyed by wicked market forces.”

But perhaps, to be less grim, we’re just on the path to a new normal as far as what can be expected in new sales, that the irrationally exuberant boom time of several years ago with record sales and growth was more of a bubble and not a sustainable trend.

PV Permits To Date

Oahu

Last month the Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting issued 231 PV permits compared to 368 in 2016, a drop of 37 percent.  From January to June, 1,171 PV permits were issued compared to 2,610 in 2016, a drop of 55 percent.  Compared to the first six months of the all-time high year of 2012, PV permit numbers are down 78 percent.

The stated project value of the first six months of PV permits came to $44,342,520 compared to $93,576,042 in 2016, a reduction of 52 percent.

Hawaii Island

Last month the Hawaii County Building Department issued 78 permits for photovoltaic systems compared to 135 PV permits issued in June 2016, a drop of 42 percent.

Over the first six months of the year, the County issued 354 PV permits compared to 703 during that same period in 2016, a drop of 50 percent. Compared to January-June 2015, the PV permits number is down 72 percent.

The stated project value of the first six months of PV permits came to $22,196,861 compared to $31,060,143 in 2016, a reduction of 26 percent.

County of Maui

Of the three service territories served by the Hawaiian Electric companies, Maui County, comprised of Maui, Lanai and Molokai, took the biggest hit in the drop in PV permits so far this year.

Last year the County of Maui issued 1,007 PV permits over the first six months compared to 363 issued this year, a 64 percent drop-off. Compared to January-June 2015, the PV permits number is down 69 percent.

Kauai

In contrast to the rest of the state, the Garden Isle actually saw an increase in the number of PV permits issued January-June 2017 compared to the same period last year. Kauai County issued 378 PV permits this year compared to 193 January-June 2016, a near doubling of 96 percent.

What accounts for this outlying behavior? There are a number of possible reasons. In contrast with their neighboring Hawaiian Electric utilities, Kauai Island Utility Cooperative does not have either circuit or system level hosting capacity restrictions that could serve to limit the installation of new rooftop solar PV systems.

Also, KIUC formally ended its Net Energy Metering program in 2009 and has had essentially just one rooftop solar PV interconnect agreement, their schedule Q contract, available rather than the somewhat challenging menu of NEM, Customer Grid Supply (CGS), Customer Self Supply (CSS) and Standard Interconnect Agreement (SIA) options across HECO, HELCO and MECO. This could make for a more steady-state incentive over the past years compared to the more boom-bust cycle across the other islands.

The Second Half Of 2017

Even though Net Energy Metering across the Hawaiian Electric companies was formally brought to a close by a Hawaii Public Utilities Commission order in October 2015, NEM has been lingering on through a slow demise.

The three utilities have been allowing NEM reservation holders plenty of time and then some to get their systems installed and operational while also, as per PUC order, transferring NEM deadwood to the CGS program capacity limits.

With the original CGS caps having been successively reached last year for Maui, the Big Island and Oahu, the injection of additional cap space has been at least a mini lifeline to the PV industry. But, as we saw with NEM, all good things do eventually come to an end and, as per the commission’s order last December, CGS will close for good October 21 even if there’s still cap space available.

The parties to the Distributed Energy Resources docket before the PUC have been diligently working on the next steps as far as new interconnect models for renewable energy systems connecting to the grid. There’s the hope and expectation that there will be at least one option to allow home and business customer-generators to provide power back to the Hawaiian Electric companies.

A concept known as “smart export” would seem to be the most likely candidate to be implemented as an option. Under smart export, power from a renewable energy system would be allowed during certain periods of the day when power is needed the most, typically in the evening hours when demand peaks.  In return for these green kilowatt-hours, the customer-generator would receive credit or compensation at a rate yet to be determined. The commission has asked the parties to this docket to come up with consensus stipulations by next month.

It often seems to take a while to get a good or even excellent idea adopted across our chain of islands.

In the meantime, as those last NEM stragglers get installed and this fantastically successful 16-year-old program completely disappears, most likely never to return, and CGS closes down as well, Customer Self Supply and battery storage take center stage.

For those of us greybeards who have been in the solar industry for decades, to experience the return of battery storage, exemplified by the stratospheric trajectory of Elon Musk’s Tesla brand, is something akin to déjà vu all over again.

If one were doing solar PV back in the off-grid backwoods and jungle days from the 1970s to the early 2000s, battery storage was required. As grid-tie PV began its ascent in California 2000-2001, more and more manufacturers brought battery-less inverters to market as the demand for grid-tie solar went up.

Now batteries are back in force, bigger in capacity, smaller in size, bolder in performance claims, wiser in multiple operating modes, glitzy in form and lower in price. What more can we ask for? Except perhaps for the hope that they will work as described and meet the expectations of those early buyers who have imbibed deeply enough of the sales pitch to be willing first adopters.

When Hawaii became the 38th state in the country to adopt a NEM program in 2001 after multiple prior failed attempts in our Legislature to get a bill to the governor’s desk, one could yet again observe that it often seems to take a while to get a good or even excellent idea adopted across our chain of islands.

If that were to be true for the most part, it certainly is not the case when it comes to how far ahead our little state of 1.4 million has gone in deploying 83,000 and counting rooftop solar PV systems and reaching levels of renewable energy penetration of our islands’ grids that are off the charts compared to virtually anywhere else in the U.S.

There is strong consensus among Hawaii energy stakeholders that bringing considerably more rooftop solar PV online is a good thing and a high priority. But with this year on pace to see the lowest numbers since 2010, we in the industry are wondering whether what we’re experiencing now is the new normal as major players disappear completely or see their PV sales revenues drop by as much as 80 percent to 90 percent.

There are ongoing high-brow discussions on grid modernization, smart grids, smart inverters, smart meters, smart export, smart monitoring and controls, utility-scale battery storage, improving the power supply and the like.

But the real-time and near-term effects of these efforts on the local PV industry can be rather limited as the urgencies of generating sales and revenue, meeting payroll and paying vendors is on a decidedly different track than those working groups and regulatory proceedings.

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About the Author

  • Marco Mangelsdorf
    Marco Mangelsdorf has been in the renewable energy field for nearly four decades years and is president of ProVision Solar, a Hilo-based solar company designing and installing PV projects across the islands since 2000. He has taught energy politics at UH Hilo and the University of California and is a director and secretary of the Hawaii Island Energy Cooperative which seeks to convert the Big Island's electric utility to a coop.