Anyone who spends time on a surfboard knows that there is a certain etiquette out there in the water. Or at least there’s supposed to be. Throw an unprecedented number of kama’aina and newcomer surfers into a spot where the waves are breaking and watch out. One local surf guide website has this to say: “If you respect others and do not drop in on other surfers, you will probably have a good day…When you go, paddle out humble and leave humble. When someone is on a wave, it’s your job to get out of the way…Definitely don’t paddle across their line…It is often best to just bite it and paddle into the breaking part of the wave and allow the surfer to enjoy the wave.”

If the photovoltaic scene in 2012 on Oahu were to be understood as a surfing metaphor it’s fair to say that any possible humility or biting it to allow others to enjoy the wave is about as unlikely as 10’ heavy wooden surfboards making a comeback any time soon.

Nowhere in the nation is there a more crowded and competitive field for solar electric system sales than Oahu. Nearly 200 different companies pulled PV permits from the City and County of Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting (DPP) in 2012, up from 114 over the first six months of last year. In 2012, a total of 16,715 PV permits were issued, a figure more than 170 percent of the previous 10+ years’ worth of PV systems installed across the entire state over that time.

In September DPP established an on-line permit application process for PV permits. In October alone, the all-time record month as far as permits issued, 2,433 permits were approved, an average of more than 80 per day. After starting out more slowly in the beginning of the year, which is typical for the solar electric industry, the last two months had the DPP issuing close to 4,000 PV permits, more than the total for all of 2011.

In light of the sometimes 200 or more PV permits issued by the DPP in a single day and the record number issued over the past 12 months, there may be reason for concern that the DPP is not providing an adequate level of review and scrutiny over the overwhelming majority of PV permit applications. While the on-line application process requires the contractor to identify the brand, model and number of solar modules and inverters, there is no requirement to provide even a one-line schematic of the system design let alone anything detailed. Imagine a building department issuing a permit to construct a home based on the contractor not providing a set of engineered plans, but simply stating how many feet of 2’x4’s and how many sheets of plywood would be used.

The counties of Maui, Kauai and Hawaii all require PV permit application packages to include system schematics and are typically reviewed by county-employed personnel who are licensed electricians. On the Big Island, the review process is taken even a step further with all PV schematics requiring the stamp of a licensed electrical engineer. On Maui, a properly licensed journeyworker or supervising electrician, as well as the homeowner, is required to sign the permit application, which all but eliminates unscrupulous contractors from pulling permits without the homeowner’s knowledge and consent. In the interest of expediency, apparently, and at a significant cost to the C&C that is still not charging anything to process and issue PV permits nor for the inspections, DPP has cranked out tens of thousands of PV permits using a process that has allowed for a questionable level of oversight over the record-busting number of systems that were installed last year.

Leading the Pack

While close to 200 companies obtained PV permits on Oahu in 2012, the top 15 were responsible for about 80 percent of all PV sales by stated project value and about two-thirds of the total number of systems.

Top 15 Oahu Contractors based on Stated PV System Value

Top 15 Oahu Contractors based on number of PV System Permits

RevoluSun/DEP Hawaii, established in 2009, entered elite territory in 2012 by becoming one of the relatively few PV design and contracting firms in the country to go over the $100 million/year in revenue mark. Using an inviting “Join the RevoluSun” marketing theme and encouraging shopping homeowners to become a “RevoluSunary,” management has been bold and ambitious going after sales and market share on Oahu, across the state and has even developed a franchise program to expand to the Mainland.

While RevoluSun/DEP solidified and expanded their no. 1 status in 2012, Vivint Solar, with their door-to-door approach and focus on a one visit close-the-sale pitch, gets the Oahu PV phenomenon of the year award. Even though Vivint got a later start in 2012 by not hitting the streets until March, as a Utah-based company their success has been unexpected and impressive. Getting their start in security and home automation before branching into solar, Vivint was impressive enough to attract a $2+ billion purchase price from the Blackstone Group in September. Backed by some of the major PV financiers on the Mainland, Vivint Solar relies almost exclusively on 3rd party-funded residential sales where the homeowner pays little or nothing to have a system installed on their roof. Others offer this option as well, but have not experienced the degree of ascendancy in such a short period of time as Vivint Solar.

The top PV permits puller on Oahu was Bruce Ekimura and his team at Alternate Energy. Starting in the solar water heating business before getting into the solar electric field, Alternate Energy has based its marketing strategy on having an exclusive relationship with Mitsubishi Electric. (Of the four remaining Japan-based major PV players—Kyocera, Mitsubishi, Panasonic/Sanyo and Sharp—Kyocera and Mitsubishi appear to be better positioned to weather the severe turbulence that the industry has been experiencing.)

Losing relative market share in 2012 was Elemental Energy/Sunetric, slipping to 4th and 8th in the stated project value and number of systems permitted respectively. Number one in 2009 and number two in 2010 and 2011, Elemental Energy/Sunetric, “Hawai’i’s Solar Authority” according to their advertising, has been using the hook of a free iPhone and the promise of exclusive funding to make up for the reduction of state tax credit dollars for PV system purchases which started on January 1.

Compared to just a few years ago when there were all of about 500 PV installs on Oahu in 2009 and there were far fewer players trying to get a piece of the solar electric pie, the PV industry has morphed into something practically unrecognizable to those of us who have been in the field for a decade or longer. Watching the full-court press of expensive print, radio and television advertising offering discounts and promotional goodies, the competition has never been more fierce nor the rivalries so heated and the politics so charged. And it will likely stay that way for the foreseeable future.

With Home Depot, Costco and other major retailers offering PV equipment and services and consumers being able to acquire a system the great American way—“get it now and pay for it later”—the argument can be made that a tipping point of mass adoption and commoditization has been reached. Given the explosion of PV sales on Oahu over the past 12-24 months, one can take that point a step further by observing that there’s a substantial and growing number of homeowners who don’t seem to care what brand of solar modules go on their roof or who installs them. They just want to get onboard the solar electric train before it leaves the station without them and are more than willing to consider the first credible pitch that comes their way, whether from a friend, neighbor, work associate, aunty, uncle, tutu or clean-cut PV peddler knocking on their door.

In light of the mix of the uncertainty over the state tax credits for PV and HECO grid saturation issues playing out this year, watching the ever-evolving solar electric scene on Oahu will be an interesting story to see unfold.


About the author: Marco Mangelsdorf has been in the renewable energy field for 35 years and is president of ProVision Solar Inc., a Hilo-based solar electric integrator that’s been designing and installing PV projects across the islands since 2000. He also teaches energy politics at UH Hilo.


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