Now may be best time to get renewable energy system

KAHULUI – The number of photovoltaic and other renewable energy systems in Maui County keeps growing each year.

In 2009, there were 500 customers with alternative energy systems. In 2012, the number had jumped to 3,700, and now there are nearly 4,500 Maui Electric Co. customers drawing power from renewable sources, saving money on their electric bills and producing about 30 megawatts per day, according to the utility.

That amount of power is nearly half of the 72 megawatts that can potentially be generated by Maui’s three wind farms, which are Auwahi Wind in Ulupalakua and Kaheawa I & II on the slopes of the West Maui Mountains. At this point, Maui Electric can handle the amount of renewable energy tied into its system, utility officials say.

The upward trend in renewable energy systems, especially photovoltaic systems, was discussed at the “Maui Solar Summit 2013” Friday in the Maui Arts & Cultural Center’s Castle Theater. Experts also discussed how now is the time to get a solar electric system because prices may not dip further and tax credits may dwindle in the future. At least 200 people attended the summit presented by Maui County and the Sustainable Living Institute of Maui.

Although the number of customers with renewable energy systems, which includes wind power, are climbing each year, a MECO official said the company can still accommodate more photovoltaic systems on its circuits.

“No circuits are closed. The opportunity is there,” said Steven Rymsha, MECO’s renewable energy services supervisor.

Although more customers may be able to tie into with MECO’s system, there may still be a need for some customers to pay around $3,000 for an interconnectivity study to ensure their system can be integrated into the grid without causing outages or interrupting a steady energy supply.

Over the years, homeowners and photovoltaic system installers have been frustrated and wary because they said that even if they paid for the studies, project approval was not guaranteed.

Rymsha said that so far “no one has been denied” approval for a photovoltaic project if a study was done.

Rymsha added that neighbors in the same area who want to install solar systems and need to do an interconnectivity study can also “bundle” together to share in the cost.

In response to a question about why the studies were needed if circuits could accept the added systems, Rymsha said there are safety issues that need to still be addressed as well as other technical issues.

When asked what MECO is doing to plan for the future to accommodate more photovoltaic systems on its grid, Rymsha said that wind farms investing with MECO have allowed for more capacity for renewable energy sources.

“It’s challenging,” he added, noting that “there isn’t unlimited dollars” available to quickly make changes or upgrades to the electric grid.

Despite the issues that some customers may need to deal with, G. Robert Johnston, president of Hawaii Pacific Solar, as well as other speakers, urged those interested in installing a photovoltaic system to do so now.

Johnston said that, without giving specific numbers, prices for photovoltaic systems have stabilized since there was an apparent solar panel overproduction recently flooding the market. He added that there may be changes in the tax laws that may not benefit customers.

This past lawmaking session, state legislators failed in an attempt to reduce the state’s renewable energy tax credits over four years. The tax credit started in 1976 as a measure to promote the purchase of a solar energy system and reduce the state’s dependence on fossil fuels.

But now, as solar energy has become more popular, the state is having more difficulty in affording the tax subsidies.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at