HECO rule pulled the plug on PV jobs

HECO rule pulled the plug on PV jobs
Published: Sep. 22, 2014 at 5:48 PM HST|Updated: Sep. 22, 2014 at 9:32 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Experts in Hawaii's photovoltaic industry estimate that last year there were more than 5,000 electricians and installers working for solar companies. That number has plummeted to about 2,000.

Over the past twelve months Alternate Energy Inc. has laid off about 20 solar system installers.

"Guys that used to have stable careers in renewable energy are now, a lot of them, working menial jobs or are on unemployment," project developer David Thompson said.

Last September Hawaiian Electric Company began requiring HECO approval before new PV systems could be installed. The company said it was necessary to protect the power grid. But solar sales and installations slowed to a crawl.

"There doesn't seem to be any new plan in sight," said Leslie Cole-Brooks, executive director of the Hawaii Solar Energy Association.

She said layoffs can also be measured by building permits.

"If you look at the permit counts, they've dropped somewhere between 50 and 65 percent compared to last year," she said.

Thompson said in 2013 his company closed on about 2,100 permits. That was a very good year.

"So far to date we're at 275," he said. "It's not only been cut in half, it's been cut by about 70 percent plus."

Alternate Energy's warehouse is full of PV panels that arrived one year ago and are still waiting for installation approval

"I don't feel very positive about the future of being able to connect to the grid, just because I see it on a daily basis," Thompson said.

Cole-Brooks hopes for a turnaround but expects employment in the solar field to get worse before it gets better.

"I'm actually anticipating another round of layoffs here," she said. "I know that companies are keeping people on the books even though they don't have work for them."

The state said in the past, solar jobs accounted for about one-fourth of all construction income. Those days are gone.

"When you think about the intangible statistics, the anxiety and stress of folks not being able to meet their financial requirements, I think that can't be overstated," Thompson said.

That's the new reality.

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