Unresolved Solar Applications Pile Up
More than 100 applications to install rooftop solar on Molokai remain pending at the hands of Maui Electric, according to a company representative. This delay as been reprimanded by Public Utilities Commission (PUC) Chair Randall Iwase, who issued a statement last week expressing dissatisfaction in the holdups on Molokai to approve and connect new rooftop solar.
“I am disappointed with several recent events that affect new renewable energy projects in the Hawaiian Electric Companies… which may also work against the goals of lowering electric rates for all customers and achieving 100 percent renewable energy by 2045,” he wrote.
In February of last year, Iwase and the president of Hawaiian Electric Companies (HECO) signed a letter of agreement stating in part that “the policy is that the HECO Companies have an affirmative duty to interconnect a potential customer pursuant to existing statutory requirements, commission orders, and the utility’s tariff where that project does not affect circuit or system level security and reliability.”
Iwase said he believes HECO and subsidiary Maui Electric may not be upholding their end of the agreement.
“In light of the HECO Companies’ commitments and the spirit of this letter agreement, the ongoing void in comprehensively addressing the Molokai system, and the slow progress associated with approving new grid-supply applications raises serious questions about the HECO Companies’ actions pursuant to the letter agreement,” he wrote.
A Maui Electric representative said more than 30 percent of the electricity provided to Maui County customers came from renewable energy as of the end of 2015.
“As a leader in the integration of renewable energy, clearing a path forward does come with challenges,” said Jamie Cook, Director of Renewable Energy Projects at Maui Electric. “Balancing the high levels of solar penetration on Molokai’s small isolated grid – particularly during times of low customer demand for electricity – is one such challenge and has created concerns about the stability of the island system.”
As of last March, 65 solar applications on Molokai were in limbo, following an effective shut-down of Maui Electric to accept additional rooftop solar systems onto the island’s grid. At 51 percent as of last year, Molokai has the highest percentage in Hawaii of rooftop solar compared to the island’s peak electricity demand. Most of the rooftop solar is installed under a program called Net Energy Metering (NEM), which pays customers the retail electric rate for excess energy generated from their panels. Maui Electric asked the PUC to close that program, and their request is still being reviewed.
During a meeting on Molokai in March 2015, Mat McNeff, MECO manager of engineering, told residents because the high volume of solar generation on Molokai could cause fluctuations in electric frequency resulting in potential island-wide power outages, MECO is no longer able to connect new rooftop photovoltaic (PV) systems under the NEM program.
This year, Cook said Maui Electric and Hawaiian Electric have initiated additional studies for Molokai to determine how best to address the stability and service reliability issues caused by the high levels of PV on Molokai’s small electrical grid. Currently, 107 PV applications are pending on Molokai, according to Cook, and MECO is “consulting with the PUC before taking any actions to address these service reliability concerns.”
“We continue to accept and review applications for rooftop solar systems on Molokai and are following the process we agreed to with the PUC,” added Cook. “Throughout February, we’ve been working to contact customers with pending applications and updating them on the status of the grid and talking with them about their solar applications. In contacting customers, we’re sharing our progress. We understand their concerns about the process and we appreciate their patience as we seek both system and customer-level solutions to best address the near-term stability and service reliability issues caused by the high levels of PV on Molokai’s small electrical grid.”
Cook said last November, MECO proposed some options to the PUC that are currently under review. These near-term solutions include the option to install rooftop solar systems that come with equipment to control when energy can be provided to the grid. Another proposed option is a “Minimum Impact System” or a self-supply system that would not export power to the grid. Longer-term plans for the company include taking steps to facilitate a renewable energy future for the island, including entering into preliminary discussions with a potential independent power producer for a utility-scale PV system with energy storage, according to Cook.
In the mean time, Molokai customers awaiting an answer on their solar applications — many of which have been pending a response for more than a year — remain frustrated. Iwase said the PUC is reviewing these issues and will determine whether the actions of Hawaiian Electric Companies have been consistent with the interests of its customers, and may consider further action if necessary.
“It is my belief that, to achieve these [renewable energy] goals and benefit customers, we must encourage fair and timely processes for competitive procurement and interconnection of clean energy projects,” said Iwase.