Age of utility scale solar has begun on Maui County

Projects in Lahaina, Kihei blessed with larger ones on horizon

Daniel Cormode, director of systems analytics for Bay4 Energy, describes how the 10.85-acre solar farm above Lahainaluna High School works following a blessing ceremony Wednesday. Solar plant owner Kenyon Energy also held a blessing for its 11.3-acre farm in Kihei on Wednesday. The projects went online earlier this year. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

LAHAINA — Perched on a solar panel on Kenyon Energy’s large-scale solar farm is a unique device that looks like a UFO and only measures about the width of a hand.

But these small pieces of machinery, called pyranometers, play a big role on the solar farm, allowing analysts to know just how much sunlight is hitting the ground and to ensure the panels are producing the same amount of energy.

“If one of these panels stopped working, it’s such a small change that it’s hard to see,” said Daniel Cormode, director of systems analytics for Bay4 Energy, which manages the site. “So we do the data analysis in order to detect problems. . . . This is one of the most important instruments for doing that.”

It’s little details like these that keep things humming at Maui’s first two large-scale solar projects, which came online in May and October and were blessed in Lahaina and Kihei on Wednesday. South Maui Renewable Resources is located on 11.3 acres of Haleakala Ranch pastureland mauka of Piilani Highway and the Maui Research & Technology Park, while Ku’ia Solar in Lahaina sits on 10.85 acres of Kamehameha Schools land just above Lahainaluna High School. Each project generates 2.87 megawatts and is capable of powering an average of 1,000 homes a year.

“This has really been a team effort by everybody,” said Clay Biddinger, chairman and chief executive officer of Kenyon Energy. “We own solar facilities all throughout the United States, and none are more beautiful than our sites that we brought online this year on Maui.”

A small device called a pyranometer detects the amount of sunlight hitting the panels. Solar farm operators compare the data to the energy produced by the solar panels to ensure all the panels are working properly. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

Dana Sato, director of asset management for Kamehameha Schools, said that projects like the solar farm are “changing the way we think and utilize our lands.”

“This land was a very abundant piece of property,” Sato said. “This land fed people in Lahaina. This land provided for the people of Lahaina. And through the ingenuity that we see today, it’s allowing us to combine our past with our future and letting us again provide for the betterment of our community.”

Sato said students will have the opportunity to learn more about renewable energy technology and gain skills for future jobs.

“People may look at this project and say, ‘another solar farm,’ ” Sato said. “When we look at this project, and when we know that our partners are looking at this project, it is far deeper a message than just a solar farm.”

The Lahaina site is ideal because of the temperate climate and exposure to sun and wind, which helps keep the panels cool and allows them to make even more electricity, Cormode said during a tour of the facility Wednesday.

The 2.87 megawatt South Maui Renewable Resources solar farm, which went online in May, was blessed Wednesday. The solar farm sits on 11.3 acres of Haleakala Ranch land mauka of Piilani Highway and the Maui Research & Technology Park. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Each of the 3-foot-by-6-foot panels can generate a little more than 300 watts of electricity when the sun is directly overhead. That’s equivalent to a computer or about 10 or 15 LED lightbulbs, Cormode explained. At around 9:30 a.m., the panels likely were generating about 50 watts.

As the sun warms the panels, the electricity travels through wires into combiner boxes, which protect the wires if the panels short circuit or a fuse is blown. The electricity then makes its way to the inverters and transformers, large metal structures that help convert the power from DC to AC and increase the voltage so it can be fed into the grid.

The plant is automated and remotely accessible by Maui Electric Co.

“At certain times of the day, MECO might not be able to accept (electricity) because of limitations in their systems,” Cormode said. “Maybe there’s just not enough demand. And so if there’s not enough demand for electricity at a certain point in time, then MECO sends a signal and the inverters will reduce the amount of power they export.”

Cormode said the panels are made to last 25 years, though they will decrease in production each year. That’s why the solar farm is “a touch overbuilt,” actually capable of generating 4 MW to make up for the loss in generation as the panels age, he said.

State Sen. Roz Baker speaks during Wednesday afternoon’s blessing of the South Maui Renewable Resources solar farm. Looking on is Clay Biddinger, chairman and CEO of project developer Kenyon Energy. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Solar power has played an important role in Hawaii’s push toward 100 percent renewable energy by 2045. Maui County is at 34 percent, which comes from a mix of wind, hydropower, biofuels and nearly 12,000 rooftop solar systems, MECO spokeswoman Shayna Decker said. In June 2017, MECO reached a peak of 77 percent of its power coming from renewable energy.

Large-scale solar projects are beneficial because they allow MECO to control large, centralized systems, which keep the grid stable and benefit all customers, not just those with rooftop solar.

Electric rates are currently 34 cents per kilowatt hour on Maui, roughly half of which is the cost of fuel and taxes, according to Decker. The rest covers the cost of operating the utility and providing constant service to 71,000 customers countywide. The large-scale solar projects can provide energy to the grid at a cost of 11.06 cents per kilowatt hour.

“Solar should reduce the overall cost to run the utility, and in the end, what we’re hoping for is that everybody has lower-priced power,” Biddinger said. “That’s really the goal of what we’re doing here, while at the same time being clean and protecting our infrastructure and our planet.”

Maui also is expecting two more large-scale solar farms over the next few years, a 15-MW solar and 60-megawatt-hour battery storage system in Ulupalakua a 60-MW solar and 240-mWh battery project in Central Maui.

“I think the boom has as much to do with, this just makes economic sense, as it does with the desire to have high amounts of renewables,” Cormode said. “If you are a homeowner and you put panels on your roof, there’s a cost and there’s a payback. If you put a system like this out in the field though, the cost could be half of what it could be to put on a roof because of things like economies of scale.”

While the upcoming projects are significant in size, both Biddinger and Cormode thought solar was a worthwhile use of former sugar cane lands and a necessary step toward total renewable energy.

“Think of the number of houses something like this can serve,” Cormode said.

Kenyon’s contract with MECO does not call for battery storage, but Biddinger and Cormode said they could consider adding it to the sites in the future.

MECO President Sharon Suzuki said Wednesday that “we’re really excited” about Maui’s first two utility-scale solar projects.

“We can’t get to 100 percent renewable by ourselves,” Suzuki said. “We need developers, their partners, landowners, government and community advocates and leaders to help us get there.”

James Simpliciano, a farmer who owns land downslope from the solar project, said that he knows some people are concerned about the visual impacts and the space that solar farms take up. But he said that “if we value regenerative, sustainable energy, we’ve got to look at this type of new, regenerative sources.”

“Imagine we’re getting cut off from the outside world of fossil fuels, and we need to generate power,” he said. “This is the only way we can survive, by having investors help our community build systems that we can’t afford. But now we can have more affordable (energy), hopefully, with more systems like this.”

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