New rules issued by Hawaiian Electric Company Sept. 6 has poured cold water on the once red-hot solar industry.
According to the new rules, homeowners who want to install a photovoltaic system must first check with HECO to see if their neighborhood circuit can handle the extra PV. In neighborhoods where the daytime minimum load for PV has gone above 100 percent, HECO may require an interconnectivity study and circuit upgrades that could cost a homeowner several thousands of dollars.
"I just spoke with someone this morning and they're laying off 30 employees next week,” said Leslie Cole-Brooks, executive director of the Hawaii Solar Energy Association. “It can't go on. I mean 50, 60 percent of the business is completely stalled out."
Traditionally, the final three months of the year are the busiest for PV installations as customers race to beat the deadline for federal tax credits. But with the new HECO rules hampering speedy PV approvals, some companies have resorted to less the scrupulous tactics.
According to a memo issued Oct. 22 by HECO Senior Vice President of Customer Sales Jim Alberts, some solar companies have been telling potential customers that HECO approval is not required before hooking up a PV system to Oahu’s electrical grid.
The memo to solar companies lists the following:
- A solar vendor is telling prospective customers that it has a “special arrangement” with Hawaiian Electric to avoid studies and upgrades. (No such agreement does — or can – exist.)
- Some solar vendors are telling customers on high PV circuits to install and turn on their PV systems without approval to interconnect.
- It’s been reported that at least one solar vendor has told customers in high PV areas that they can interconnect their system without participation in net metering as long as they sign a waiver agreeing to be liable for any potential Hawaiian Electric charges in the future.
KITV4 obtained a contract addendum from a solar company doing business in Hawaii that authorizes the company to proceed with PV installation before HECO determines whether an interconnectivity study or possible upgrades is required. The company, which KITV4 chose not to name, has since issued a new addendum clarifying that a customer's PV system won't be connected to the electrical grid until it receives HECO approval.
Independent solar contractor and radio talk show host Jeff Davis believes companies that attempt to bypass the HECO approval process risk giving the industry a black eye.
"It makes us look like a bunch of money-hungry, greedy, desperate people and we're not," said Davis. “Those people who might sign a paper such as that might find themselves unable to activate their system.”
Although HECO won’t say what actions it may take if it comes across an unapproved PV system, homeowners who proceed without the utility’s knowledge may find themselves in the unenviable position of paying for a solar loan on top of their electric bill.
"Could you imagine paying both a photo voltaic loan and an electric bill?” said Davis. What will that do to the average household's budget here on Oahu?"
HECO spokesman Peter Rosegg issued a statement to KITV4 saying the concern over unapproved photovoltaic systems is three-fold: The safety of customers and their electrical equipment, the safety of HECO crews and reliable electrical service for all customers.
“Connecting a new rooftop PV system to the utility grid without giving Hawaiian Electric the opportunity to check the circuit in question for safety and reliability, as required, and without getting formal approval for the connection from the utility puts both safety and reliability at risk,” said Rosegg. “It is unwise and irresponsible to do so.”
However, those who work in the solar energy industry say HECO needs to do a better job approving PV systems in neighborhoods that are not highly saturated. They say that’s especially true with federal PV tax credits expiring at the end of 2016.
"For people that are under the 75 percent saturation, they need to be moving forward in a couple of weeks," said Cole-Brooks.