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Community Solar Proposals Take Shape

By Dayanti Karunaratne, Community Reporter

It is an exciting time for renewable energy on Molokai as the community awaits details of what will be the island’s biggest ever solar energy project. Unlike past solar projects that involve in-stalling rooftop panels on private property, this project will involve the building of a large solar plant to generate energy — and reduce electricity bills.

Projects under the Community-Based Renewable Energy Program (CBRE) platform, set up by Hawaiian Electric (HE) and approved by the Public Utilities Commission, will be selected through a bidding process called a Request for Proposals (RFP). The CBRE model involves a “community solar” installation that allows customers who cannot put solar panels on their roof to still reap the financial and environmental benefits of solar energy.

First announced by HE in October, the formal call for bids has not been released. That hasn’t stopped local energy advocates from coming together to prepare their proposal. The Molokai Re-newable Energy Coop (MREC), led by Todd Yamashita, Lori Buchanan, Christopher O’Brien and other residents, have worked together in the past, often in reaction to what they saw as shortcomings in projects, such as the failed Half Moon Ventures/Molokai New Energy Partners proposal. They want to see 100 percent of Molokai’s electricity needs met through renewable energy sources that are affordable, sustainable, culturally compatible and environmentally friendly. Most recently, the coop held virtual interviews with six solar energy companies that MREC would partner with to build the facility. The meetings are open to anyone and records are available online.

The 2.75 megawatt (MW) solar plus battery storage project could meet the electric needs of 1000 households, according to MREC, and would be locally owned and operated. Organization of the coop is taking place in partnership with Shake Energy Collaborative, a public benefits corporation energy development start-up in California.

“We see ourselves working on behalf of the community,” said MREC president Todd Yamashita. “I see electricity as a basic human necessity. The biggest benefit [of MREC] is this is for, and by, community members. The nature of it being a coop means that it’s inclusive. We are not a profit driven organization, and I think our vision is clearly aligned with the values of our community. The major component there is trust.”

Last month, HE announced it would also compete in the RFP process, via its own “self-build” team. At a virtual community meeting on Dec. 3, HE representatives explained their plan to build at their Pala’au Power Plant, describing a 2.5 MW project that would be “developed, constructed and owned by the utility.” Their subscription model would involve customers buying a “subscription” to the solar project that would provide credits to be used toward their monthly bill. They also emphasized that choosing a HE team would ultimately be easier for customers be-cause it would allow for one “point of contact.”

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