More Rooftop Solar Coming for Molokai
By Catherine Cluett Pactol
Molokai is at the forefront of the country’s renewable energy future, and residents got a chance to talk story with their utility company, Maui Electric, ask questions and share what’s important to them last week.
With more than 100 Molokai customers waiting to install rooftop solar, photovoltaic (PV) challenges took a front seat at the discussion. Those residents had filed applications under the Net Energy Metering (NEM) program — which pays customers the retail electric rate for excess energy generated from their panels — before the program was discontinued to new applicants last October.
Jamie Cook, Maui Electric’s director of renewable energy projects, said 107 applicants are currently waiting in the queue to be approved — the same number that were waiting in March of this year. That number had nearly doubled from the pile-up of 65 applications in March 2015. The holdup is because Molokai’s already high volume of solar energy is causing instability in the island’s small electric grid. But the end is in sight for those awaiting connection, promised Cook, calling Molokai “a success story” for integrating PV.
“We intend to honor all the NEM applications in that queue — and we will be able to interconnect a few of those customers soon,” he said, adding that even though the NEM program is closed to new applications, those 107 customers would still receive NEM program benefits. “We can’t give an exact time frame but it’s our intent to focus on efforts that would allow all those applications to move forward within a year.”
This past spring, Maui Electric announced a pilot program partnership with E-Gear Technology, a company that will provide equipment to allow rooftop PV systems to be monitored and controlled by the utility. Cook described it as “a really high-tech solution to integrate more renewable energy.” He said the pilot is moving forward and will allow 10 customers currently waiting for NEM approval to move forward with their installations. He said the program is only being offered for the Kaunakakai area and those waiting in the NEM application queue will be selected in the order that their applications were received. Maui Electric will be reaching out to the 10 selected applicants in about a month, he said.
A new type of rooftop solar system called self-supply is also opening up to customers as another option. Cook explained it is a non-export model — meaning excess energy generated from a resident’s PV panels would not feed back into the grid — but rather could be stored for future home use in a battery storage system. Cook said to date, the company has only received one application for this program on Molokai.
Sharon Suzuki, Maui Electric president, said the goal of Wednesday’s meeting with Molokai residents was not to provide them with the company’s plan for the future, but rather hear what the community wants. She said Maui Electric is hopeful that Molokai will be able to reach 100 percent renewable energy ahead of the state’s 2045 goal.
Some questioned what happened to a long-awaited battery in partnership with University of Hawaii’s Hawaii Natural Energy Institute (HNEI). The goal of the huge 2 megawatt battery to provide backup and stabilization for Molokai’s electric grid while providing an opportunity for HNEI to test its usage. Mathew McNeff, manager of Maui Electric’s Power Supply Department, said the battery has arrived on Molokai and after a few years of manufacturer delays and repairing damage caused en route, it is now installed near the Pala`au power plant but is awaiting its control system, or its “brains.”
McNeff informed residents that Maui Electric is also moving forward with efforts to clean up the old Molokai Electric sites in Kaunakakai. Oil and other contamination are still present in the area and McNeff said they are working with the Department of Health and Environmental Protection Agency to restore the site to its former condition. A sampling plan will be implemented to determine the extent of the contamination, and additional public meetings will be held on Molokai in the next two months for public comment, said McNeff.
Residents expressed relief when Suzuki confirmed that LNG, or Liquid Natural Gas, is no longer being considered for use on Molokai. She said it was discussed because of lower fuel costs but the Molokai power plant would have required costly modifications to accommodate its use.
When Maui Electric staff said a special working group has been developed just to address Molokai’s electric challenges, residents said they wanted to be part of it. While no community members are currently part of the group, Maui Electric’s Mahina Martin said the company’s intent is to develop ways in which residents can add input.
For those wondering what had become of a large-scale solar project proposed for Molokai, Suzuki said Maui Electric has a nondisclosure agreement with the company but confirmed they are in negotiations. Previously known as Ikehu Molokai and now called Molokai Island Energy, the project is being proposed by Half Moon Ventures and Princeton Energy, and despite a lack of recent updates, is still under consideration.
Some residents wondered why Maui Electric has not provided the island with a charging station for electric vehicles, and staff said the company is open to it but wanted to first gauge the community’s interest. With the proposed NextEra merger now off the table, Suzuki said Maui Electric’s parent company, Hawaiian Electric Industries, has the financial strength to invest in new technologies and resources, even without NextEra.
Check upcoming issues for more Maui Electric updates.