Growing numbers for rooftop solar in county

Maui Electric Co. added nearly 1,600 rooftop solar photovoltaic systems and 12.5 megawatts of power in 2013, raising to 8 percent the amount of MECO customers with rooftop solar.

That brought MECO’s total rooftop PV installations to 5,246 and 41 megawatts of capacity, Hawaiian Electric Co. said last week in a news release. MECO and Hawaii Electric Light Co. are subsidiaries of HECO.

“We continue to experience tremendous growth in rooftop solar here in Maui County,” said Mat McNeff, MECO renewable energy services manager.

He said that 1,573 rooftop PV systems were installed for a total capacity of 12.54 megawatts in 2013. He added that an additional 20 megawatts of PV have been preapproved and are currently under development.

“We will continue to do what we can to help more customers take advantage of solar power,” McNeff said.

HECO reported that 17,609 solar installations and 129 megawatts of capacity were added in 2013 on Oahu, Maui, Molokai and the Big Island. The total number of solar photovoltaic systems interconnected to HECO grids at the end of the year was 40,159 with a total capacity of 300 megawatts – 96 percent of which take advantage of net energy metering.

Under net energy metering, those with rooftop PV receive retail credit for electricity generated for the grid, which is used to offset the electricity they use at night and on cloudy days.

While 8 percent of MECO customers have rooftop solar, 10 percent of HECO customers on Oahu and 7 percent of Hawaii Electric Light Co. customers on the Big Island had PV at the end of 2013, HECO said.

“This unprecedented rapid growth in rooftop solar in Hawaii has resulted in some neighborhood circuits reaching extremely high levels of photovoltaic systems,” HECO said. “An increasing number of distribution level circuits have rooftop PV capacity exceeding 100 percent of the daytime minimum load, the trigger for interconnection studies and possible implementation of safety measures or upgrades before new PV systems on that circuit can be interconnected to the grid.”

HECO said that these conditions have “slowed the pace of rooftop solar growth in the last quarter of last year.”

Some community groups and solar companies on Oahu have been critical of HECO and harped on the decline in PV installations on Oahu in the last quarter. They cite new policies implemented by HECO in September that, among other things, require those installing PV systems to contact the utility before entering a contract for a system.

“HECO is afraid its outdated business model and decades of comfortable state-guaranteed profits are under assault,” said Robert Harris, director of the Sierra Club of Hawaii, last week. “So last September, it slammed the brakes with an arbitrary claim that its circuits are saturated with rooftop solar. This fact – if true – should have been foreseen and prepared for. HECO claims to support solar, but its actions do not reflect its words.”

On Oahu, the state Department of Business and Economic Development reported permits down 16.1 percent the week of Jan. 20 compared to the same week last year. From the beginning of the year to Sunday, permits were down 27.7 percent from the same period in 2013.

Doug McLeod, county energy commissioner, said that the Oahu trend is not occurring on Maui and Molokai. He noted that Oahu “went crazy” with solar installations, increasing its rooftop PV penetration from below 4 percent at the start of 2013 – the lowest of the HECO grids – to 10 percent – the highest of the three utilities – by year’s end.

“They cannot sustain it,” he said. “They grew so fast.”

By contrast, MECO’s PV growth went from 5 to 8 percent of customers in 2013, he said.

“It’s still growing and growing at a decent pace,” he said.

In fact, there has been an increase in PV permits on Maui since the fall, he said. The rooftop solar business on Maui is “extremely, extremely busy,” he said.

“I don’t know how long it will last,” McLeod said. “January 2014 is a good month for solar.”

* Lee Imada can be reached at