Chicago firm pitches solar panel, battery project for Molokai

37-acre solar farm could stablize rates now, reduce reliance on oil-generated power

A Chicago-based renewable energy company is proposing a 37-acre solar panel and battery project that it says would cover nearly half of Molokai’s energy needs and stabilize sky-high electricity prices.

Half Moon Ventures wants to set up a 2.74-megawatt solar farm on 35 acres next to the Maui Electric Co. power plant in Palaau. Two additional acres would be set aside for a 15-MW battery storage system.

“What’s really interesting about Molokai is that . . . this is really ground zero for renewable energy,” said Mike Hastings, chief executive officer of Half Moon Ventures. “You guys have the most expensive power in the U.S. You’ve got a great solar resource. You import a ton of oil from foreign countries. . . . You guys really want to achieve renewables. To us, this is a place that we wanted to learn about.”

Hastings and other executives of Half Moon Ventures brought their proposal to the Molokai community Oct. 2. Half Moon has solar and battery storage projects across the country, including eight in Hawaii. Hastings said that the company specializes in small community projects and liked Molokai’s emphasis on self-sufficiency and environmental preservation.

In 2015, Half Moon acquired Molokai Island Energy — formerly known as Ikehu Molokai — from Princeton Energy Group. The project originally called for a solar farm and hydroelectric storage system in Manila Camp, but plans and location changed as members of the community spoke up. Since acquiring the project, Half Moon has been visiting Molokai and doing studies on the possibility of a utility-scale solar and energy storage venture in an industrial area near MECO’s plant.

Half Moon is already two years into a 30-year lease for the land, according to Charles Magolske, executive vice president of corporate development.

The proposed 35 acres of solar panels would provide 41 percent of the island’s energy, and the battery system would offer storage when the island’s grid can’t accept extra solar power, said Jason Katcha, Half Moon’s chief technology officer.

“The system has the ability to just say, ‘I’m not going to put out any more solar,'” Katcha said. “In the evening we can discharge the battery and put it into the grid. So this is really a great way that we’re able to use more solar on Molokai.”

Hastings said that the project would generate about 12 million kilowatt-hours a year, which is the equivalent of replacing 300,000 gallons of diesel or taking 1,000 cars off the road.

Executives said that the goal was also to keep electric bills down. Hawaii has the most expensive residential electricity prices in the country at 29.25 cents per kilowatt-hour, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. And, Molokai had an even higher residential rate at 32.71 cents per kWh in 2016, second only to Lanai, according to Hawaiian Electric Co.’s website. Recently, MECO proposed a 9.3 percent increase to its base rates that would up Molokai bills by $11.25 a month.

Magolske explained that half of a person’s electric bill is a fixed charge that has nothing to do with fuel consumption. The other half of the bill could be lowered by shifting the reliance from diesel to the more stably priced solar, he said. Half Moon estimated that for every $10 increase for a barrel of oil, rates per kWh go up by 2.2 cents.

“We’re going to offer to MECO a price a little bit less — a few pennies less — than what it costs them to generate diesel today,” Magolske said. “They’ll put it in their black box to generate whatever the bill is. . . . But what it means is a portion of your electricity will be stable for a very long time.

“When oil goes up, your bill doesn’t.”

Renewables within reach

Molokai is slated to become the first island to reach 100 percent renewable energy under HECO’s push toward total renewable reliance statewide by 2045. The utility believes Molokai can get there by 2020. By that time, HECO expects Maui to be getting 63 percent of its energy from renewable sources, while Lanai should be at 59 percent and the state at 48 percent.

“Molokai is ahead of the rest of the state when it comes to seeing the effects of what happens on a small island electrical grid — not connected to any other electrical system — with a higher amount of variable energy, like solar, than the island’s actual demand or energy usage,” MECO spokesperson Shayna Decker said Thursday.

Maui County as a whole reached its limit on rooftop solar in June 2016, when MECO announced that customers wanting to install solar would have to purchase batteries to store excess power instead of sending it to the grid for credit. Decker said there are currently 72 solar applications in the queue on Molokai, while a separate 23 applications are moving forward as customers participate in MECO pilot projects.

Magolske said Half Moon’s project could help open the door to more rooftop solar.

“What inhibits rooftop solar is the fact that the diesels are a portion of the generation,” he said. “Eliminate the diesels and that constraint changes. Depends what you replace it with, of course. We’re not eliminating the diesels, but I want to tell, you it’s a big step.”

On Molokai, MECO has been working to improve its power plant by installing new digital devices to make the system more reliable. Early next year, the utility also plans to install a load bank at its Palaau plant. A load bank is a large heater that consumes power and helps stabilize the generators, preventing brownouts or system-wide outages. MECO has also launched pilot projects to help customers who have been waiting for rooftop solar to move forward, Decker said.

The timing is ripe within the solar energy market, Magolske said. Tax credits are still available, and solar panel and battery prices are low. That’s why Half Moon thought it was a good time to bring the project forward. The company and MECO have been negotiating costs, timelines and other aspects of the project.

“If negotiations with HMV are successful and the project is approved by the state Public Utilities Commission to move forward, this solar project is just one facet of our overall work to build a broad mix of clean resources — both firm and variable renewable energy — to reach 100 percent renewables on Molokai ahead of the state’s goal,” Decker said.

Community benefit

Some residents at the Oct. 2 meeting said that they liked the company and the project, but wanted the assurance that the project would truly save them money and benefit the broader community. One man was concerned that the lack of competition would keep Molokai from getting the best possible deal out of Half Moon.

Emillia Noordhoek, director of renewable resources for Sust’ainable Molokai, encouraged community members “to really think long and hard, and not take the first offer that comes along.”

“I like you guys. I like your project,” Noordhoek told Half Moon. “To me what’s important is what the community wants and what is best for the community. And this community has spoken again and again about being independent and about wanting to own its own resources and manage them.”

Noordhoek said there are plenty of options for the community, including buying out the project in five years.

Matt Yamashita, writer, producer and director for Quazifilms on Molokai, said he believed the island was ready for the project.

“I don’t want to see Molokai go from being potentially at the tip of the spear in terms of moving toward renewable energy and getting off fossil fuels, and getting kicked to the back of the line because we’re not ready for this,” Yamashita said. “I think we are ready for this. It’s the only project that has been brought to this community that’s concrete at this moment and that addresses that very basic idea of us getting away from the status quo . . . of shipping diesel fuel in to provide our power.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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