Why once booming photovoltaic industry is facing a downturn

By Brenton Awa
Published On: Oct 10 2013 10:31:00 PM HST

A move by HECO to help more customers "go green" has the photovoltaic industry seeing red. Layoffs, backed up stock, and businesses desperate to stay afloat is just a few of the problems contractors are dealing with. But it's also affecting homeowners.

HONOLULU -

Layoffs, backed up stock, and businesses desperate to stay afloat are just a few of the problems photovoltaic contractors are currently dealing with after procedural changes made by the Hawaiian Electric Company last month.

Click here to see Brenton Awa's report.

Rolf Christ is the owner of R & R Solar and is also on the board of the Hawaii Solar Energy Association. His company is one of two major wholesalers of photovoltaic systems on Oahu. Christ supplies over 200 contractors with products, but his stock continues to back up, over stocking his warehouses because of a slowdown in PV installations. A result of a move he says came out of nowhere by HECO.

"I don't understand how HECO didn't see it coming over the last 3-4 years," said Rolf Christ, of the Hawaii Solar Energy Association.

Christ says the PV industry was booming last year and it was just getting into its busiest months. When HECO implemented changes on Sept. 6, he says the industry came to a halt the very next day.

"HECO found a way to accept more product to the grid, it sounded positive and maybe eventually it will happen, but for now its put a big stop to a lot of business," said Christ.

"We have to make sure that we're looking out for the reliability of the system, the customers equipment, and the safety of our workers who are working on the lines," said Darren Pai, spokesperson for the Hawaiian Electric Company.

Christ says one of his customers laid off 60 employees one week after hearing about the changes. He says other companies have laid off half of their crews.

HECO says the reasons for the changes are to make it easier, faster, and less expensive for customers to get PV systems while ensuring safety.

"You can have voltage spikes which can damage consumer electronics, can damage utility lines and transformers," said Pai.

Christ and other contractors don't buy that reason.

"There's lots of circuits over 100 percent capacity and there's no issues," said Christ.

The main change for contractors comes by way of the net energy metering agreement, which asks HECO to connect the home system to the grid.

In the past contractors would install a system and submit the agreement to HECO, but now contractors say they must submit the agreement first, which holds up their process.

"Now the contractor has to be careful what to tell the homeowner because they cannot really promise them that they can interconnect," said Christ.

So if your trying to get a system, you might have to wait. Contractors say that period can range anywhere from two weeks to five months. In some cases, customers may have to pay additional fees that contractors say have yet to be revealed.

"A lot of homeowners are sitting on the fence not even signing contracts because they say we want to see first how much HECO is going to charge us for improvements on the grid," said Christ.

"Were going to work with our customers, work with the PV industry and try to make sure we can have as much PV on the system as possible," said Pai.

This situation has also caught the attention of lawmakers who may gather as soon as next week to discuss the subject.

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