PUC rejects solar bid to lift cap on customer grid-supply option

By Duane Shimogawa – Reporter Pacific Business News

Hawaii regulators have shot down a request by an alliance of solar energy industry trade groups to increase the cap on one of the options for installing rooftop solar that replaced net energy metering, according to public documents.

Earlier this year, the solar groups, including Sunpower Corp. and The Alliance for Solar Choice, filed their request with the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission, weeks before the capacity of this option was reached.

This customer grid-supply option was intended to provide customers with the choice of exporting excess energy to the grid in exchange for energy credits against the customer’s bills, to the extent such energy export benefits the electric system.

“The not-so-good news is that we, the photovoltaic industry and homeowners who would like to go solar electric, will not be getting any additional customer grid-supply cap space along with the likelihood that the development, finalization and implementation of phase two will stretch out into late 2017,” Marco Mangelsdorf, president of Big Island-based ProVision Solar, told Pacific Business News. “What kind of local solar industry will be left standing in late 2017 is a major question mark.”

The group said that the increase in the cap would’ve allowed sufficient time to undertake and complete the transition to a permanent plan, which is still to be formulated for the PV market.

“Adjustment of the cap will also provide more certainty to the solar market and help maintain the industry’s interim viability,” the group said in its regulatory filing.

Last Friday, the PUC also ruled that some of those late customer grid-supply applicants who were left out once the caps were reached will have a chance to get in once the net energy metering backlog is cleared.

Additionally, state regulators established a schedule and framework that will look into the next phase of the PV industry.

The other option that replaced net energy metering — customer self-supply — which involves the use of energy storage, is still on the table, and has been getting more and more traction in the past few weeks after a slow start.

“One thing is for sure: we are getting into unchartered waters as Hawaii effectively becomes the first in the nation to transition away from an export-based model, where surplus solar power is sent into the grid providing the customer-generator some credit value for those kilowatt-hours, to a self consumption-based model that necessarily requires battery storage,” Mangelsdorf said. “How it’s all going to work in the real world and what kind of utility bill savings will accrue to these first adopters will be an unfolding experiment.”

Data from the Hawaii Solar Energy Association shows that employment in the industry is rapidly declining, with 70 percent of surveyed solar firms reporting workforce reductions of 35 percent on average since the net energy metering program was ended by state regulators in the fall of 2015.

Net energy metering had driven record growth in rooftop solar in the Islands and at one time it was one of the fastest-growing sectors in the state.