Solar companies say cap on installations could lead to big layoffs

Solar companies say cap on installations could lead to big layoffs
Published: Dec. 1, 2015 at 10:35 PM HST|Updated: Dec. 1, 2015 at 11:45 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Solar companies are warning that the Public Utility Commission's new cap on photovoltaic systems that feed power to the grid could slash Hawaii's solar workforce in half.

"I don't expect 50 percent of the companies to disappear, but 50 percent of the work will," said Rolf Christ, who owns R&R Solar Supply and has been in the business for more than three decades.

That means about 1,100 workers could lose their jobs.

The PUC cap is set at about 4,000 new solar installations, and Hawaii's 115 solar companies could reach the cap by April.

Once the cap is reached, PV systems will still be sold -- but they'll need to be off the grid.

"Not being able to feed into the grid anymore will lengthen the payback period," Christ said. "That affects every single sale, no matter how big the company is."

Solar installers are anxious about how they'll be affected.

"I think the general sentiment of the guys is just focus on what we can do now, and try and take care of our families the best we can," said solar worker Mikala Canonigo.

Canonigo worked his way up from installer to supervisor, and said working on photovoltaic installations has paid his bills.

"It's not easy. You pay to live in paradise," he said.

PUC Chairman Randy Iwase believes the impact of the cap will be offset by the completion of jobs that were pending in Hawaiian Electric Co.'s queue before the cap was ordered.

"The grid supply and self supply programs also will provide opportunity to work with respect to the self-supply, which is buying a PV plus batteries and not export energy to the grid. There is no cap," he said.

But Christ said battery backups are expensive.

"Until battery cost comes down and the payback gets reduced, our business will suffer," he said.

Christ said he will have to scale back his 25,000-square-foot warehouse by a third to save money. He may have to cut his crew by 20 to 25 percent.

"We have to prepare to take a few steps backwards as far as that's concerned," he said.

Meanwhile, the state's solar industry also faces another hurdle: A federal tax credit for PV units might expire next year.

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