Solar industry sees big layoffs following end of popular incentive program

Solar industry sees big layoffs following end of popular incentive program
(Image: Hawaii News Now/File)
(Image: Hawaii News Now/File)
A new report says Hawaii's solar industry is shrinking and the downturn coincides with a big change to a popular incentive program.
The program allowed residents with solar photovoltaic systems who produced more energy than they used to return excess energy to the grid and receive a market rate credit.
Experts say when solar was more expensive, so-called net energy metering made it possible for homeowners to install panels that nearly paid for themselves. 
But since the Public Utilities Commission ordered the end to net energy metering last October, solar officials say an industry that was once booming is now steadily declining.

"Hawaii has the most solar penetration per capita in the nation, so it definitely had a big part in bringing jobs to the state of Hawaii,” said Hajime Alabanza, executive assistant of the Hawaii Energy Solar Association, which is made up of 84 members from across the state.

A recent HESA report finds that in the last six months, 75 percent of solar companies statewide have had to lay off employees.
On average, more than one third of their workforce was cut.

"Since the end of net energy metering program in October of last year, we've seen a significant slowdown in activity,” Alabanza said.

PUC officials say they eliminated NEM, which was designed to help make renewable energy affordable, because it wasn't intended to last forever.
It was replaced by the Customer Grid Supply program, which operates nearly the same way. The difference: The credit homeowners get back is set at a wholesale rate not a retail rate.
"It's still an incentive for people to buy PV. It may take a little longer for the payback to occur, but the grid supply program is still a good program,” said PUC Chairman Randy Iwase.
Another available program, called Self Supply, works a little differently. Any excess energy homeowners with photovoltaic systems don't use gets stored on a battery for future personal use, rather than returning to the grid. The technology is still very expensive, but solar officials say there's interest in both options.
"The demand is there, but they're just having trouble filling out the application and getting it approved,” Alabanza said.
Officials with Hawaiian Electric Company say they're processing requests efficiently, and have approved more than 13,000 rooftop PV systems still awaiting installation.
Lawmakers say the situation underscores the need to do something to streamline the system. Solar is a critical part of the state's plan to reach its 100 percent renewable energy goals by 2045.
"It comes down to this: It saves money for people to put in solar and put in batteries and other things, but it can also save the entire grid. All of us. And we need to be able to do that and we need a utility that will be willing to work with us to let that happen,” said state Rep. Chris Lee, chairman of the House Energy and Environment Committee
Hawaii has more than 20 times the national average when it comes to home solar systems. Officials say there are more than 78,000 rooftop PV installations across Oahu, Maui and Hawaii Island.

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