KAHULUI - Maui homeowners and photovoltaic system installers are expressing frustration at requirements that they pay for expensive "interconnection studies" before installing solar panels, with no guarantee that their project will be approved after the study is complete.
The issue appears to stem from a recent surge in photovoltaic systems, adding more renewable energy to the island's electrical grid than Maui Electric Co. can handle. MECO officials said the interconnection studies - which can cost homeowners as much as $15,000 to $20,000 - are needed to ensure their system can be integrated into the grid without causing outages or interrupting a steady energy supply. But advocates said the requirement has discouraged homeowners from converting to solar power and served to limit the growth of photovoltaic energy on the island.
The Public Utilities Commission has required MECO to conduct its own review to determine whether a customer can safely connect to the grid, before requiring homeowners to pay for their own costly study.
Solar installers estimate that around 20 percent of the island's circuits, or neighborhood electrical systems, are no longer being allowed to add any more photovoltaic systems because they have hit the maximum capacity of solar energy allowed by MECO.
Some critics say the company has placed too much emphasis on expansion of renewable energy sources, in order to meet the state's 40 percent renewable mandate by 2030, and has neglected the development of backup storage systems that would prevent the problem.
But MECO President Ed Reinhardt said the requirements were not intended to limit solar development, but to prevent outages and overloads on the electrical grid.
"We want to protect our system," he said.
Solar has grown at a rate where last year installers sold and put in more units than they had in the 10 previous years combined, Maui County Energy Commissioner Doug McLeod said.
"It's hard to explain how much growth we are talking about here," McLeod said.
The driving force is great tax rebates for solar, he said. The systems can pay for themselves within several years, and can even sell power back to MECO, he said.
But they come with a major downfall, because the power stops at night.
That's a major issue for a utility like MECO, which must guarantee electricity to all customers whether the sun is shining or not. He said that's the reason the company set a cap of 15 percent on photovoltaic energy during peak usage hours.
Trip Lynch, marketing director of HNU Energy, said MECO had a "legitimate engineering issue," but that it could have and should have improved its infrastructure to address the problem by now.
"The real issue is storage," he said. "There's not enough battery storage in the grid."
With so much government and private investment dollars "floating around" for massive renewable energy projects, some should be set aside for large-scale storage infrastructure, too, he said.
Matthew "Mat" McNeff, MECO Renewable Energy Department director, said MECO is investing in several battery storage projects of its own, but not enough to cover MECO's maximum peak load of more than 260 megawatts.
But Reinhardt said that the company now mandates that large renewable energy producers include their own battery storage systems, which will help with the problem.
On the homeowner level, Brad Albert, co-owner of Rising Sun Solar, said he's seen residents pay for the costly "interconnection" studies, only to be put on a waiting list for approval to install their photovoltaic system, never knowing when more capacity will open up for them.
Reinhardt insisted that the studies make sense.
"It tells us if we don't need to restrict installation," he said.
However, Albert said he thinks MECO is being too conservative and should keep reviewing its numbers to allow more customers to jump on board or at least not leave them waiting in the dark.
In November, the PUC responded to complaints by allowing for "a new, streamlined supplemental review" if a project exceeds the 15 percent threshold instead of going straight to a full interconnection study. However, it's unclear so far how successful the free survey, paid for by MECO, has been.
The installers said they haven't noticed a significant change.
Tracy Deshield of Wailuku said she was paying more than $300 a month in electric bills before she had a photovoltaic system installed on her roof last year. She was so pleased with the result, that she decided to expand her system and add more panels this year. But she was told she could not, because her neighborhood's circuit had hit its capacity.
"This is an outrage and just not right," Deshield said.
She questioned whether MECO was restricting the expansion of solar energy because it might take revenue away from the company.
Reinhardt said MECO tries to convey an honest position to the community, but sometimes the messages get mixed.
Albert said it's a complex, and at times confusing, process - at least to outsiders. He said he's seen MECO deem a proposed system safe for the system because it decided to use a different circuit availability rate, which was 50 percent minimum usage on a Sunday afternoon.
Haleakala Solar co-founder Lynn Whitcomb said most Mainland grids can handle a threshold of 30 percent photovoltaic at peak. And on Kauai, which is outside the HECO system, the grid accepts a 60 percent solar threshold, she said.
"It's killing us and frustrating, and I don't know what to do," said Whitcomb, who said she has 100 potential customers waiting on Maui.
Lynch said the irony in all of this is that renewable energy's profile has been raised up and up to be a success, but it just can't handle the attention - at least not yet.
* Chris Hamilton can be reached at email@example.com.