Solar customers explore options off the grid - Hawaii News Now - KGMB and KHNL

Solar customers explore options off the grid

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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) -

Three months after Hawaiian Electric started requiring its approval for solar installations, hundreds of customers are still waiting.  Uncertainty and delays are fueling speculation about the possibility and practicality of going "off the grid", with no ties to the electric company.  

"If you're thinking of going off-grid – it's a very reasonable thing to be evaluating, but it's probably a little early to pull the trigger on a system like that," explained Mark Duda, Revolusun's founder.

Hawaiian Electric officials say the new policy guarantees a stable, safe grid – but local solar companies say the new regulation has caused their once-growing billion dollar a year industry to hit a major speed bump.

"About 50% of our jobs have been put on the hold button," described Chris DeBone, Managing Partner for Hawai'i Energy Connection, the company behind "KumuKit". "We stopped all installations of jobs that we did not have approval from the utility," DeBone said, adding it lead to "a significant lay-off within our organization".

"Business has really, slowed down significantly.  We've seen over a 30% decline in our existing customer base," explained Aaron Cates, an analyst with Sunetric.  "Several hundred customers have been put on hold.  There's a lot of uncertainty.  I think in general, consumers are just afraid.  They don't know what the costs will be.  They don't know what the times will be," Cates said.

"It's been very challenging," Duda said.  "A lot of people aren't signing new contracts, even in some cases where they're in areas that have relatively low saturation, because there's just too much confusion swirling around the sector."

Hawaiian Electric's grid can only accommodate so much solar power and its limitations are sparking interest in using battery storage as full-time option, not just a back-up plan.

"In Hawai'i where the power costs 2 or even 3 times as much as anywhere else, it's a lot easier to start having this conversation than it is in other parts of the U.S.," Duda said.

Technically it is possible, and experts say independently powering a home with solar photovoltaic and a backup battery is only expected to become more affordable in the future. 

"Whatever a grid-tied system would be now, if you choose to go off-grid – you could be looking at upwards to doubling the cost and with maintenance of those batteries under current battery technology, that would be a repeatable expense every 5 to 6, maybe 7 years, for the life of the system," DeBone explained, adding it's unclear whether tax incentives will apply to a replacement batteries.

Currently, back-up batteries are considered either a luxury for those who can afford it or a necessity for people in remote locations.

"You can fill up your entire garage with batteries and have a generator in your backyard and you can go off grid today, but it will not be a cost effective option," explained Cates.

But experts say advances in battery storage technology are driving down costs and increasing their desirability in saturated areas where homeowners don't know if or when they'll get approval from Hawaiian Electric to connect their solar panels.

"If we lose the opportunity to connect to the grid than people will be going aggressively in that direction," Duda predicts.

According to Hawaiian Electric, the average wait time depends on the circuit and the size of the system but almost 80% of all solar connection requests are approved in about 15 business days.  Customers who live near circuits that are heavily loaded with PV require safety and reliability checks, and those aren't given a wait time – instead they receive a status letter saying they are pending review.  Hawaiian Electric says it's unclear exactly how many customers fall into that category.

Solar industry officials agree customers are looking for answers, but none seem to think backup batteries – running completely independent of the grid – are the solution, just yet.

"It's not HECO's intention for people to go off-grid.  It fixes the problem of an individual customer, but it amplifies the problems that they're foreseeing on the grid as a whole – the safety concerns, the voltage and back-feeding at a substation level – all become amplified as people start to pull off the grid.  It's in everyone's interest to come to a common solution, and I think that's why you'll see HECO really starting to scramble to find options that avoid mass exodus off of HECO's infrastructure," Cates said.

DeBone says he doesn't believe going "off-grid" is the right choice, right now.  Instead, he says Hawai'i Energy Connection wants to partner with Hawaiian Electric to create a battery-based storage solution that would benefit the grid by mitigating some of the safety issues and intermittency issues happening now.

"It would be a hybrid model, just like how you see hybrid models on the road.  It is a grid-tied photovoltaic system with storage capabilities.  That storage capabilities would be able to – during intermittent times of the day as clouds come and clouds go –  the storage takes over makes it a more even output out to the utility grid, which is one of the biggest concerns with the utility is this intermittence as clouds come and go.  Instead of storing all the electricity in an off-grid system, you'd need a lot of batteries to store all that electricity, this allows some of the electricity to be used in the home and some going out to the utility – but at very strategic times of the day, when the utility needs that power.  You would need a lot less batteries, it would be more affordable, and it would help support the grid for the rest of the ratepayers throughout the island," DeBone explained.

The future is unclear, but local solar companies say Hawaiian Electric's new interconnection policy is spurring innovation.

"Between cost and technology, solar is absolutely here to stay so it's a matter that everything else has to conform to that reality," Duda said.

"Solar will happen. We'll find a way.  We'll fix our problems and there will be a lot of opportunity in the years to come," said Cates.

In the meantime, Hawaiian Electric officials say anyone who disconnects from the grid will not have any access to electricity – even in an emergency.  As for those who want to stay on the grid and install a solar battery system for backup power, they still must have their connection approved by Hawaiian Electric.

Hawaiian Electric officials tell Hawaii News Now they are nearly ready to announce a plan worked out with the Hawaii Solar Energy Association and Hawaii PV Coalition to help a lot of customers who were in progress of getting a solar installation – with a binding contract and/or a binding loan to pay for the PV – when the utility announced the new safety and reliability changes procedures on September 6, 2013.

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