The Hawaii Department of Education says it will need another $10.6 million to pay for utilities next year, a situation district officials blame on Hawaiian Electric Co.’s problems hooking up new solar.

HECO’s holdups connecting photovoltaic panels to the grid are causing delays in the DOE’s ambitious plan to have solar on every school in the district. And the problems also mean that Oahu schools haven’t been able to enjoy the energy savings that DOE finance officers had anticipated when developing the department’s two-year budget last year.

“It’s a technical issue — it’s not malfeasance or anybody dropping the ball,” said Ray L’Heureux, assistant superintendent for facilities, at a Board of Education meeting earlier this month. L’Heureux said the department is working with HECO to come up with a solution.
Civil Beat has reported that many solar customers are finding themselves in limbo because HECO has changed its rules for connecting solar systems to the grid, citing capacity issues that could cause power outages and pose safety concerns for utility workers.

It looks like Oahu public schools, most of which already have panels installed, are caught in that same limbo.

That $10.6 million accounts for more than a fourth of the $40 million supplementary operating budget request that the department submitted to the governor earlier this month.

The DOE’s solar panel pilot project, which has already been successfully implemented at many Kauai schools, is part of a $1-billion effort to reduce energy costs to a net zero within five years by powering schools with solar and wind sources. L’Heureux has called the project bold and innovative.

But that plan, known as the Energy Efficiency and Sustainability Master Program, has been stalled, too, because the department allegedly mishandled procurement for the contractor charged with overseeing the initiative. A former DOE employee filed a lawsuit against the department in July alleging the department awarded the contract to a company that should’ve been disqualified because of problems with its proposal.

The department had to cancel the contract and restart the procurement process. L’Heureux told Civil Beat the department has awarded a new contract and plans on publicly announcing the winning bidder in the coming weeks.

Still, L’Heureux said the legal setbacks have nothing to do with the PV delays and the department’s need for another $10.6 million.

Originally, department finance officers thought they would’ve saved roughly $8 million with the PV panels. The additional $2.6 million covers projected rate increases, according to DOE chief financial officer Amy Kunz.

HECO Spokesman Darren Pai said the utility is working on coming up with a solution with education officials.

“Hawaiian Electric is working hard to increase the amount of PV that can be safely installed by all types of customers,” he said in a statement. “We are working with the solar industry to make sure these installations are done safely while maintaining reliable service for all customers.”

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