A deep discussion over the existence of parallel universes and alternate realities is probably better left to those with highfalutin titles and impressive sounding abbreviations after their names. That said, there would seem to be unmistakable evidence that we in the solar electric field in Hawaii are experiencing a very different reality than the one inhabited by those outside the industry.

Since Gov. David Ige signed into law the 2015 bill which mandated that Hawaii be 100 percent powered by renewable energy by 2045, not including transportation, and all the attendant and oft-repeated hoopla, it should perhaps come as no surprise that those big picture visionaries among us get so excited about a target goal to make our state so much more energy independent 28 years from now.

But according to Hawaiian Electric, we need not and should not wait nearly that long to make great strides in bringing more renewable energy on-line across the five islands that they serve.

Hawaii leads the nation in rooftop solar power, but its lost momentum just as it sets aggressive new goals for renewable energy. Jon Callas/Flickr.com

On Dec. 23, the HECO companies submitted the third iteration of their Power Supply Improvement Plan to the Public Utilities Commission. Rightly focusing on the near-term imperative to achieve substantial progress, included among those thousands of pages are Hawaiian Electric’s projections of how much additional solar photovoltaic (PV) distributed generation (DG) they envision being added over the next five years.

Their projected DG numbers are bold, ambitious and represent a reality apart from the one we in the PV industry have been living through over the past year. What took 15 years to accomplish, as far as the cumulative amount of DG PV added or approved to go in across the HECO, HELCO and MECO service territories, Hawaiian Electric projects increases of between 30 to 60 percent of additional DG PV in just the next five years.

As a near 40-year veteran of the solar energy field and the owner of an electrical contracting firm specializing in PV applications, I would like nothing better than to exist in that reality and plan for robust sales and a reasonable and sustaining slice of that haupia pie.

The numbers for 2016, though, portend for a far different buffet table as PV systems went in at the slowest clip since my staff and I have been crunching the PV permit data starting in 2011.

In fact, as a record amount of solar electric generating capacity went in across the mainland last year, the decreases in the number of PV permits issued in 2016 compared to 2015 ranged from modest to scary: 10 percent down for Kauai, 34 percent for Oahu, 47 percent for Maui County and 54 percent for the Big Island.

Solar Slowdown

 On Oahu the peak year as far as permits issued was in 2012.  On the Big Island and Maui it was 2015 while on Kauai the peak came in 2014.  All these peaks and valleys have made for one heck of a solar-coaster ride for those of who live and breathe solar PV for a living.

It’s worth noting the only modest decrease in issued PV permits on Kauai. In fact, over the past five years the number of new systems being installed on the Garden Isle has been relatively stable. What accounts for that?

Two factors: Kauai Island Utility Cooperative formally ended their NEM program in 2009 with those still wishing to go PV getting compensated at the wholesale or “avoided cost” rate, which makes for a more steady-state incentive over the past years compared to the more boom-bust cycle across the other islands.

And beyond transformer upgrades being required on an as-needed basis, the co-op has had no circuit or system wide restrictions on the installation of roof-top PV other than requiring those PV system purchasers who are determined by KIUC to be over-sizing their solar arrays to install a disconnect device that can curtail the system’s output.

Across the rest of the state, we in the industry have had our ups and downs with the coming and going of the fantastically successful Net Energy Metering (NEM) and the short-lived Customer Grid Supply (CGS) programs, unprecedented grid penetration by roof-top PV leading to closed-off circuits and regulatory priorities and decisions that sometimes leave us twisting in the wind or, perhaps to use a more accurate metaphor, trying to stay solvent under skies that are getting darker.

Painful Transition

Since the late 1990s, the dominant NEM interconnect model for grid-tie PV in the U.S. has been based on two main components: being able to supply surplus solar power back to the grid and receive credit at the retail rate for those solar kilowatt-hours.

Our PUC, going where few if any other commissions on the mainland have gone before, decided in October 2015 that this export model was to be effectively phased out until the so-called phase 2 under the Distributed Energy Resources docket (one of the four “power” dockets currently open before the commission) is discussed by all the intervenors on the docket, finalized and implemented.

Translation: for Oahu, Maui, Lanai, Molokai and Hawaii Island, the only new sales that can be made to those homeowners still interested in going PV must be under the Customer Self Supply (CSS) program, which means that no surplus solar power can be fed back to the grid. Which requires battery storage. Which means additional complexity and cost. Which leads to a longer payback and less attractive return on investment.

And the numbers so far for CSS? As of early January, the total number of self supply applications in various stages of the process for HECO, HELCO and MECO came to 549, for a program that has been available since late 2015. For perspective, in 2016 the counties of Oahu, Maui and the Big Island issued a combined average 655 PV permits per month. The takeaway being that self supply sales need to dramatically increase, despite lesser incentives and a higher costs, in order to keep businesses like mine and my competitors’ viable.

What’s Ahead

One ray of short-term hope is going to be the ongoing PUC-mandated transfer of expired NEM deadwood capacity to some of those waiting in the CGS queue. How many of the approximate 6,500 total “applications approved for installation” in the Hawaii Electric companies queue report for the five islands that they service will eventually be culled, no one knows. But over the coming months we in the industry hope the winnowing and transfer will be completed and provide work for our crews to install CGS systems. This would at least provide us at least something of a lifeline as we wait for CSS sales to ramp up.

But beyond such a short-term boost, what can we realistically hope for as far as more roof-top PV in Hawaii?

Right now according to the numbers reported by Hawaiian Electric and KIUC, about one in every six or seven single family residences in our state has a PV system installed, the highest by far per household in the U.S. Sure, some of my colleagues say, while that percentage may be comparatively high, that means that more than 80 percent don’t have PV which represents a huge, still fertile market for more sales. Very true, of course, pending the consideration of an important question to which no one knows the answer.

What’s the adoption rate cap for PV? If one in every six or seven homes having a solar electric power plant on their roof is just a start, how feasible and realistic is it that every home would have PV? Or every other home? Or one in four homes? There is no knowable, accurate methodology to determine such a maximum adoption rate.

It’s worth noting that solar water heating, which Hawaii leads the nation as well in deploying, has been available and incentivized since the 1970s and we’re still nowhere close to 100 percent adoption with what’s estimated to be about 30-40 percent of homes having solar thermal panels on their roofs. (Whereas it’s possible to accumulate accurate data on the number of utility-tie PV systems connected to our islands’ grids, no body that I can find has comparable data on solar hot water systems.)

Phase 2, as mentioned above, is supposed to provide the foundation for a more predictable and stable post-NEM, post-CGS world for home and business owners still wanting to grab their little piece of the sun and generate all or at least a portion of the electricity they need and consume. As well as provide the solar industry with a fair and viable range of choices that we can market, sell and keep our doors open by installing.

No one is to blame for the state we in the industry are in. The electric companies are going where no other utilities in the U.S. have gone before as far as the solar penetration into the collective good of the power grid.

The HECO companies have been going the extra mile and then some when it comes to giving approved NEM customers multiple chances to get their systems installed and operational.

The PUC has had an unprecedented and extraordinarily full and complex set of issues and dockets on their hands while having been to a certain degree preoccupied by the recent 19-month saga of the rejected acquisition of Hawaiian Electric Industries by NextEra Energy.

And the governor and Legislature, despite their good intentions, have limited influence at least in the near-term when it comes to effecting regulatory changes and taking direct measures to support the solar industry.

Connecting the realities of the bold-sounding goals and rhetoric of more and more roof-top PV and what’s actually happening on the ground is the dynamic which will be playing out this year and beyond. All of us in the solar energy field have to hope that things start breaking our way sooner rather than later.

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