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Utility-scale solar projects near the ‘finish line’ but need more time

Lahaina, Kihei projects focused on connection with MECO, Maui grid

The Ku‘ia Solar project in Lahaina, shown in January, is one of two utility-scale solar projects on Maui that are “near the finish line,” after seeking a second extension in March, according to the project manager for developers Kenyon Energy. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Two utility-scale solar projects on Maui are “near the finish line,” after seeking a second extension in March, said the project manager for developers Kenyon Energy on Monday.

“They are both in the very final stages before commercial operation,” said Jesse Myers in a phone interview.

The South Maui Renewable Resources project in Kihei and Ku’ia Solar in Lahaina originally had a “guaranteed commercial operations date” of Dec. 31, 2016, with delay damages to be assessed through June 29, 2017, at which time Maui Electric Co. could terminate the agreements. On Aug. 10, Kenyon Energy, the project development arm of parent Sun Financial, secured an extension of the delay damages date to Feb. 24.

Unable to meet that deadline, the developers of the two 2.87 megawatt projects secured a further extension of the delay damages date to April 25 for the South Maui project and May 25 for the Lahaina project, filings with the Public Utilities Commission said. However, the damage assessments were increased.

Myers gave every indication Monday that this would be the last extension.

“Effectively all of the equipment, all of the hardware is in place in those projects,” he said. “We’re really feeling good about it.”

Current work focuses on interconnection, commissioning and testing to make sure the solar projects interface safely with the Maui grid, Myers said.

“I would say we’ve been blazing the trail collaboratively with Maui Electric,” Myers said. “There have have been some technical issues. . . . It is taking longer than we have expected on this last phase.”

Crystal Kua, spokeswoman for Kamehameha Schools, which is leasing the land in Lahaina to the project, added: “There are always challenges encountered when working toward accomplishing something worthwhile for the first time. Ensuring that all of the communication and control systems between the facility and Maui Electric are working properly requires a fair amount of engineering expertise.

“All parties have been working collaboratively to surmount the challenges to deliver safe, reliable, clean energy to Maui consumers.”

Myers made a point to praise MECO for its collaboration.

“I work with utilities all over the country,” he said. “The team at Maui Electric has been some of the most accommodating . . . and easy to work with . . . interested in seeing these projects come alive.

“It’s been refreshing even if there have been some technical issues to work out.”

Myers explained that the Kihei project is a little ahead of the Lahaina project due to heavy rain and mud delaying access to the site near Lahainaluna High School. He added that knowledge gained from hooking up the South Maui project, near the Maui Research & Technology Park, will make connecting the West Maui project to the grid “a much faster, more efficient process.”

He could not give a definite date for completing the connection with the MECO grid for either project, citing delays such as the weather.

“We really can’t set a hard date,” Myers said. “We are pushing toward the goal as fast and hard as we can.”

Some of the delays were anticipated “without any real ability to adjust,” said Myers. He noted delays in getting PUC signatures on contracts and on permitting.

“We knew going in . . . we would likely be incurring some of these penalties,” he said. “It hasn’t been a surprise it has taken longer than we would like.”

Each project has accrued $76,500 in damages as of Feb. 24 at a rate of $318.90 per day. The delay damages increased to $502.46 after Feb. 24 to compensate MECO for the estimated daily bill savings lost by utility customers, the filing with the PUC said. The delay damages will be taken out of future receipts.

In February 2016, Hawaiian Electric Co. on Oahu terminated two large solar projects over financial and compliance issues. Despite the delay damages, Myers said, “financially, we are certainly committed to these projects.

“I don’t see any danger in not finishing,” he said. “We are near the finish line.”

Kua added that “delays are never welcome” but “the terms of the contract are being honored and we will continue to strive to bring the facilities online as soon as safely possible.”

When up and running, the 12,000 solar panels at each project are estimated to produce 7,000 megawatt hours of power year round, Myers said. That would be enough to power an average of 1,000 homes over a year.

“We are looking forward to the solar projects coming online as they represent one facet of our overall efforts to build a broad mix of clean resources to reach 100 percent renewables by 2045,” said MECO spokeswoman Shayna Decker.

* Lee Imada can be reached at leeimada@mauinews.com.

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