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Renewable Energy Restricted in Kaunakakai

Businesses and residents who want to install solar panels in the Kaunakakai area are out of luck. Based on limits set by the state Public Utilities Commission, Maui Electric Company (MECO) has closed the circuit to new renewable energy systems in order to ensure stability and reliability of electric service, according to MECO.

“It was Maui Electric that continued to mention reliability concerns, as we take our responsibility to ‘keep the lights on’ very seriously,” said MECO Communications Specialist Kau`i Awai-Dickson.

Most renewable energy comes from an intermittent source, meaning the energy produced by solar or wind is not constant. Each island has its own energy grid, and every grid is broken into circuits that serve different regions of the island. The Public Utilities Commission (PUC) has set limits on how much intermittent energy feeds into every circuit. If a circuit is heavily reliant on intermittent renewable energy, it could affect the reliability of electrical service for customers, according to MECO.

Currently, the limit on renewable energy is 15 percent of the circuit and that limit has been reached in Kaunakakai. This is known as reaching the “feeder penetration” limit. There’s no way to tell what circuit is next, according to Awai-Dickson.

“Feeder penetration levels are driven by customer owned and installed… systems,” she explained. “Therefore, it is difficult to predict when a given circuit will reach the penetration limit.”

Earlier this month, the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) approved a request from Hawaii’s electric companies including MECO to raise the limit of renewable energy per circuit from 10 to 15 percent.

“People were starting to reach the limits and they needed to find ways to push the envelope,” Caliboso said of extending the limit for renewable energy.

The majority of Molokai’s electricity is generated on-island by diesel at MECO’s Pala`au Generating Station. The 2009 peak use of Molokai’s electric grid was 5.95 megawatts (MW). About 294 kilowatts (kW), or five percent, of that is from residential and business solar systems. Solar is currently the only type of renewable energy connected to Molokai’s grid, according to MECO.

Molokai Going Big
Marco Mangelsdorf, president of Hilo-based ProVision Technologies, has overseen the installation of several large solar energy systems in Kaunakakai including the largest on Friendly Market Center. The 81 kW system was built in the winter of 2008.

“We started realizing [financial] savings almost immediately,” said Friendly Market Center co-owner Crystal Egusa.

Before installing the solar energy system, the store’s energy bill for their heating and cooling systems was about $5000 per month, according to Egusa. She said their latest bill was $500.

Even though his job depends on installing solar systems, Mangelsdorf can see the need for limits.

“The reality is that here in the islands… grids not connected like on the mainland,” he explained. “The ability for any independent grid to accept renewable sources is limited.”

ProVision will also be building Molokai’s soon-to-be largest solar energy system at Molokai General Hospital. Mangelsdorf said the system is already calculated in Kaunakakai’s feeder penetration limit.

No Room for New Solar
Scott Schafer of Molokai Solar, who installs primarily residential systems on Molokai, said he might have to find another job if other areas of the island also begin to exceed the limit.

He expressed frustration that the proportion of commercial to residential systems in Kaunakakai did not seem proportionate. He said a couple big systems could fill up the circuit allowance, whereas 15-20 individuals could experience the rewards of renewable energy within the same limit.

Schafer said the average size for residential project he installs is between 3 and 5 kW. That’s enough to zero out electric costs for most homes, he said.

 “MECO encourages renewable energy projects of all types and sizes and does not limit the percentage of renewable energy from our commercial versus residential customers,” said Awai-Dickson.

But that doesn’t change the minds of frustrated residents.

“I have a few customers that wanted to install systems and can’t [in Kaunakakai],” said Schafer. “I’ve heard from customers that they think it’s not fair.”

Jim Reinhard of Kaunakakai is one such resident. Several weeks ago, he called MECO about a solar system he wanted to install at his house and was told the area was already full. He was told he would have to get a feasibility study done in order to proceed.

The study helps determine the effects of the proposed system on MECO’s grid and will specify if any “changes will be required to ensure maximum efficiency of the [solar] unit to assure the safety and reliability of service to other customers,” according to Awai-Dickson.

The Cost of Going Green
The cost of the feasibility study – estimated by MECO to be between $30,000 to $35,000 – must be paid by the customer. No one on Molokai has yet undergone the study in order to install a renewable energy system.

“This is not an insurmountable problem,” Reinhard said. “If we’re going to move forward with renewable energy we have to come up with solutions.”

Ted Peck, Hawaii state energy administrator, said those solutions are being explored. He said one technology energy companies are considering is to retrofit diesel generators to build up reserves for “demand response management,” or the ability to remotely manage how much energy goes to what circuit when needed.

“We’re on the cusp of transformation,” said Peck. “[Renewable] energy is critical to where we are going.” He added that utility scale generation as well as private systems are needed “in order to free ourselves from the tyranny of foreign oil.”

The State of Hawaii has set a goal of 70 percent clean and renewable energy production by the year 2030.

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