The skies over the solar electric industry on Oahu continued to be gray during the first four months of this year.

There were 577 photovoltaic system permits issued by the City and County of Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting in April compared to 1,178 issued the previous April, a 51 percent drop and the 13th straight month of year-over-year decline.

Between January and April of 2013, 4,185 PV permits were issued. During the January-to-April period of 2014, just 2,466 PV permits were issued — a decrease of 41 percent from the previous year.

Despite hopes that HECO’s February announcement to increase solar PV penetration in 100 percent daytime minimum load (DML) circuits would lead to a reopening of the floodgates, no such movement is evident in an increase in new sales and installations.

Source: City and County of Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting.

And despite whatever bills were passed in Hawaii’s recently concluded legislative session to try to facilitate more PV coming online, none of these measures will make a tangible difference in the near term as far as more solar power being accommodated by the islands’ electric grids.

Not surprisingly this contributes to continued nasty finger-pointing with the large majority of those fingers — from home and business owners, the PV industry, elected officials, mainland companies and interest groups and the Public Utility Commission — aimed at HECO companies.

The week of April 28 the PUC released a number of documents that were stunning in their analytical breadth and depth.

These decisions and orders provided a comprehensive analysis of the HECO companies’ efforts to bring more renewable energy online. (While there was some discussion of Kauai Island Utility Coop’s renewable energy efforts as well, the main focus was on HECO et al., and its parent company Hawaiian Electric Industries.)

HECO was taken to task for failing “to anticipate the rapid growth in distributed solar PV interconnections and thus did not proactively plan and manage the distribution circuit interconnection process or technical challenges.”

This analysis fails to acknowledge the impossibility of any company to have the clairvoyant ability to anticipate and plan for the more than doubling of the number of PV systems that went live every year for five straight years, from 2007 through 2012. That is five consecutive years of more than 100 percent year-over-year growth in PV installations.

During the first six and a half years (between July 1, 2001 and the end of 2007) of the Net Energy Metering program a total of 338 systems were installed across HECO-MECO-HELCO territories.

Between 2008 and 2012, 20,548 NEM systems went in — a 60-fold increase over 2001-2007. (From 2012 to 2013, there was only a 45 percent increase.)

Hawaii electric utilities have accommodated more solar PV on a per-home basis than any mainland utility and are still — in the case of HECO companies — being criticized for supposedly having a dinosaur-like and inadequate grid and an outdated and insufficient business model to allow for more PV more quickly.

Lest the discussion among stakeholders and interested parties continue to degrade further down the road on the presumption of bad faith on the part of HECO et al., it is necessary to acknowledge that there are no near-term practical, cost-effective techno-fixes out there to open our electric grids to all comers.

No matter what those smarter, more advanced Germans may be doing with their electric grid. No matter what well-meaning experts and grand thinkers near and far may propose in papers, speeches and conferences. No matter what the likes of the visionary Elon Musk may do with proposed gigawatt battery manufacturing plants. We will continue to be long on ambitious grand strategies to change the fundamentals of electric grid design and short on the means to carry out those changes in a short enough time frame to prevent the accelerating consolidation of the state’s suffering PV industry.

Does the best way forward involve acrimonious finger pointing and accusations of bad faith, or a more civil and collaborative discourse? I vote for the latter.

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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