Hawaii a solar energy leader

KAHULUI – In the last couple of years, Maui County has installed more solar rooftop photovoltaic systems per capita than nearly anywhere else in the nation, and now industry professionals are looking to Hawaii as a pioneer in solving some of the challenges with integrating more renewable energy.

Nearly 250 energy experts, utility representatives and government officials from around the world gathered on the Valley Isle last week for a three-day energy conference, “Electric Utilities: The Future Is Not What It Used To Be,” at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center.

By the end of last year, 5,246 residences in Maui County had installed solar rooftop PV panels, about 8 percent of all Maui Electric Co. customers. The panels generate electricity from sunlight and feed power back into the utility’s island grid. The solar panels now account for about 41 megawatts added to MECO’s grid, which supports a peak load of about 200 megawatts.

About 30,000 solar rooftop systems have been installed on Oahu, accounting for 10 percent of the island’s Hawaiian Electric customers, a higher percentage than any state, officials said. Nearly half of those systems were installed in 2013 alone. On the Big Island, about 7 percent of all Hawaii Electric Light customers have installed their own rooftop PV systems.

“Maui County is leading the nation in the installation of solar PV,” MECO Engineering Department Manager Matt McNeff said during a conference panel discussion Thursday. “In 2013, we installed more than we had in 2012, and in 2012 we installed more than we had in all previous years. DG (solar distributive generation) will continue to grow.”

McNeff added that currently about 45 megawatts of solar PV has already been installed in Maui County, with another 25 megawatts in some process of being installed.

“That capacity (of solar distributive generation) is larger than any wind farm on Maui or any of Maui Electric’s units. So, it’s definitely a major player in the energy industry,” McNeff said.

Such exponential growth in distributive generation solar PV poses a new set of challenges that the utility is struggling to keep up with, energy experts explained.

“Our existing utility system was really designed for taking central system generation and distributing it out to customers,” said Carl Freedman, a Maui-based energy consultant and owner of Haiku Design and Analysis. “All of the safety provisions, all the reliability provisions from the transmission and distribution system, the transformers, they were all designed to broadcast electricity to customers. Now it’s starting to turn into a two-way street. Now we have generation in different places.”

Having solar rooftop panels feeding into the system causes a peak energy generation during daytime hours around noon so that the utility can keep its fossil-fuel-generated electricity at a minimum. However, when the sun goes down in the evenings, around 6 p.m. – the same time residents are likely coming home from work to cook dinner or take showers – the utility must find a way to quickly make up for the jump in energy demand and simultaneous loss of solar energy.

To ensure electricity is available when residents flip on a switch, utilities must keep generators running at all times in case the wind stops blowing or the sun stops shining, energy experts said.

“You can’t just turn a power plant on and off (when you don’t need it),” said panelist and Pacific Biodiesel founder Bob King.

Battery power storage may be an option in the future, but MECO officials have said previously that the utility is exploring emerging storage technologies that are effective, reliable and cost-effective.

MECO has been working with companies in the private sector, such as Maui’s leading solar panel installer, Rising Sun Solar and Electric, for the last several years to discuss how the utility may continue to accept electricity generated from a sharply increasing number of solar panels. The utility also has been looking at other sources of renewable energy, from biofuels to wind energy.

“It’s a three-legged stool where the utility may need to change and look at becoming more of a platform; the consumers also need to become more patient to understand what the real problems are; and we (the private sector) need to innovate and adapt to the new realities,” Rising Sun owner Matias Besasso said during discussions Thursday.

It is the utilities that are “holding the bacon,” panelists said, because utilities have the most invested in this shifting energy landscape.

“The role of the utility is changing to more of a facilitator of the transmission of different systems,” said Maui County Council Member Don Guzman, who chairs the council’s Committee on Economic Development, Energy, Agriculture and Recreation. Solar PV generation is one system, along with wind and possibly geothermal, Guzman said.

Industry professionals and utility representatives agreed on one thing though – utilities are going to have to change their current operating systems to accommodate more renewable energies. To what extent and in what direction have yet to be determined, and last week’s conference aimed to move Maui closer to reaching those answers.

“It’s not utilities are going to win or the solar industry is going to win. There’s no reason why through partnerships, both industries cannot win and thrive and survive and work for an outcome that’s in society’s best interest,” Solar Electric Power Association President Julia Hamm said during her keynote address Wednesday. The nonprofit association represents more than 900 companies nationwide from both the solar industry and electric utilities.

The conference was hosted by the Maui County Office of Economic Development and Maui Economic Development Board. Sponsors included the Hawaiian Electric Companies, Hitachi, New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization, Hawaii Energy, the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, Eurus Energy, HNU-Energy, Sempra Energy and others.

* Eileen Chao can be reached at echao@mauinews.com.