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Consumer advocate: PV power price too high

PUC contested case hearing underway for Paeahu Solar project

Lance Collins, an attorney for Pono Power Coalition, cross-examines witnesses Wednesday in a contested case hearing involving the Paeahu Solar project. The first day of the contested case hearing was held Wednesday at the Maui Research & Technology Center in Kihei. The Maui News/MATTHEW THAYER photos

KIHEI — The state consumer advocate Wednesday warned about “pursuing clean energy goals at any cost” and allowing the pursuit of renewables that could leave developers and neighbors “fighting against each other.”

Dean Nishina, the executive director of the Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs Division of Consumer Advocacy, testified during a contested case hearing before the state Public Utilities Commission over the proposed Paeahu Solar project.

Paeahu’s developer, Canadian-based Innergex Renewables, is seeking to build a 15-megawatt solar and 60-megawatt-hour battery project on about 200 acres of Ulupalakua Ranch land above South Maui.

The renewable energy project is opposed by a group of about 700 Maui Meadows and Kihei residents. Pono Power, which sought the contested case process, says its two main issues are that Paeahu Solar is being built too close to homes on land above Maui Meadows and the high cost of the power it is selling to MECO.

Other issues raised earlier by the group included the lowering of property values on neighboring parcels in Maui Meadows, the glint and glare of the panels, health issues, insufficient archaeological and biological studies and a “heat island” that will warm surrounding areas and affect the microclimate.

Hawaii Public Utilities Commissioner (from left) Leodoloff R. Asuncion Jr. and Chairman James P. Griffin and Commissioner Jennifer M. Potter (fourth from the left), along with PUC staff, listen Wednesday to testimony in a contested case hearing involving the Paeahu Solar project.

In his testimony, Nishina was critical of the price MECO has agreed to pay for electricity from Paeahu — 11.68 cents per kilowatt hour, according to PUC documents.

Other renewable projects, approved by the PUC during the same procurement process, included lower prices. Kuihelani Solar, a 60-MW and 240-MWh battery project in Central Maui, is selling power to MECO at 8 cents per kWh, among the lowest in the state. Higher cost projects in the state include Waiawa Solar, a 36-MW and 144-MWh battery project, and Ho’ohana Solar 1, a 52-MW and 208-MWh battery project, both on Oahu, for 10 cents/kWh.

Nishina said prices for these types of solar and battery projects are going down, with some prices even around 5 cents per kWh. He wanted to send a “clear signal to the market” that the state wants “to see lower prices” and felt that approving a higher-priced project could send the opposite message.

Hawaiian Electric Cos., which includes MECO, recently issued a request for proposals for a new round of renewable projects.

“We believe the prices (are) reasonable and very competitive,” said Edward Park, business manager for Innergex and the first Paeahu witness at the hearing.

He said prices are higher for smaller projects and referred to other small projects on Molokai and in West Hawaii. Moloka’i Energy Partners 2.64-MW with 3-MW battery storage system is charging MECO 17 cents/kWh, according to the utility. That project is expected to come online soon.

Park said the higher price also reflects the higher cost of doing business on Maui. Construction costs are higher, and there is the added shipping cost. He said the rough and sloped terrain of Paeahu produces added costs as well, especially when compared to other solar and battery projects on flat land.

Witnesses for MECO testified that the price for the electricity is only one factor. There are 11 other nonprice points that were evaluated in the project’s selection.

Park also responded to questions raised, including the project’s public outreach and the proximity to nearby homes. On the latter issue, he said the project has been moved back 270 feet from Maui Meadows in an effort to address neighbors’ concerns. There would be 250 feet of fencing around the project.

Paeahu developers looked at an alternative site further south on the parcel but Park said there are archaeological and environmental impacts that make the site unsuitable.

Parties involved in the contested case are Paeahu Solar, MECO and Pono Power Coalition.

The contested case hearing began Wednesday and will continue today, beginning at 9:30 a.m. at the Maui Research & Technology Center, 590 Lipoa Parkway, Suite 159.

On Wednesday, MECO presented six witnesses and Paeahu, one. Today, Paeahu is scheduled to present one witness with the Pono Power Coalition presenting three.

No decision will be made at the Maui hearings, said PUC Chairman James Griffin. During a break in the proceedings Wednesday, he said there is no specific timeline for a decision; transcripts will need to be prepared and parties may file post-hearing briefs.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.