Maui Turns to the Sun

Solar installations critical to state’s 100 percent renewable energy goal. By Dan Collins A variety of solar electric projects on Maui are moving forward, decreasing the island’s dependence on imported petroleum. And not a moment too soon, as fuel prices soar and Hawaiian Electric predicts…...
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Solar Panels at sunset

Three new solar projects pending approval on Maui will generate an estimated 95 megawatts of electricity, more than a third of the island’s current demand, allowing the eventual decommissioning of one of the island’s antiquated diesel-fired power plants. Courtesy pxhere.

Solar installations critical to state’s 100 percent renewable energy goal.

By Dan Collins

A variety of solar electric projects on Maui are moving forward, decreasing the island’s dependence on imported petroleum. And not a moment too soon, as fuel prices soar and Hawaiian Electric predicts a 20 percent increase in the cost of electricity this year, due in part to the fuel crisis caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Before the federal embargo was instituted in March, Hawaii received about a third of its petroleum from Russia.

New solar installations are a key part of MECO’s plan to retire the 74-year-old oil-fired Kahului Power Plant by 2024 and meet the state’s goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2045. The Kahului plant—located adjacent to the harbor—generates 37.6 megawatts, or about 14 percent of the island’s power, and currently serves about 1,300 residential and commercial customers as well as providing for the energy needs of the nearby port facilities.

In October, the West Maui Preservation Association reached a settlement with Canadian renewable energy firm Innergex over Kahana Solar, a 20-megawatt photovoltaic farm and 80-megawatt-hour battery storage facility slated for 200 acres near Kapalua Airport. The mediated agreement will require the company to kick down $1.3 million in “community benefit funds” for West Maui.

In an effort to address concerns about the project, the group had gotten involved in the state Public Utilities Commission’s review of the agreement with Hawaiian Electric Co. that would pay Innergex 8.9 cents per kilowatt hour. Innergex was selected to build the project through a request for proposals last year. It will be located on land owned by Maui Land and Pineapple about a mile and a half mauka of Kapalua Airport.

A contested case hearing demanding concessions from the developer was held in September, after which the PUC suspended proceedings and ordered the parties into mediation, which led to the settlement requiring Innergex to make financial contributions to Lahainaluna High School, the Pu’u Kukui Watershed District, Maui Cultural Lands, and the University of Hawaii’s Maui College, with additional funds allocated to the Hawaiʻi Community Foundation to be distributed to other West Maui community groups. The contributions will amount to about $55,000 a year over the 25-year life of the agreement. The settlement also calls for the company to hire locally, pay workers the prevailing wage, and sets requirements for the facility’s eventual decommissioning.

The Maui Planning Commission unanimously approved the special use permit required for the photovoltaic installation to be located on agricultural district land in November. Pending final PUC approval, construction could begin later this year.

Another solar electric installation about twice the size of the Kahana project has been approved for Maui’s central valley just east of the Kuihelani Highway near Waiko Road, about two miles southwest of Kahului. In November, the Maui Planning Commission unanimously approved Kuihelani Solar’s 450-acre project, the state’s largest to date. The solar array will stretch for about two and a half miles alongside the highway on former sugar cane fields now owned by the agricultural firm, Mahi Pono.

The project is being developed by AES, a Virginia-based Fortune 500 electric company with facilities in 15 countries. Kuihelani Solar anticipates that it will generate 60 megawatts which, along with a 240-megawatt-hour battery storage facility, will produce enough electricity to power about 2,700 homes. The energy produced will be sold to Hawaiian Electric Co. at a set rate for 25 years, after which the installation will be decommissioned and removed, unless the agreement is extended.

A third major solar installation, Paeahu Solar’s 150-acre installation on Ulupalakua Ranch land mauka of the Maui Meadows subdivision in Wailea, emerged from a contentious battle with another neighborhood coalition March 4 when the State Supreme Court upheld the PUC’s power-purchase agreement with the company, which like the Kahana project, is also owned by Canadian firm Innergex. It is expected to generate 15 megawatts and will include a 60-megawatt-hour battery storage facility.

Courtesy rawpixel.

Pono Power Coalition, a local community group formed to oppose the solar farm, alleged that the PUC had failed in its responsibility to uphold the public trust when it approved the project. They argued that the agency should have made specific findings about the project’s potential impact on cultural and natural resources rather than assuming that other permitting agencies would weigh in on those issues during their approval process.

State law demands that “the commission shall balance technical, economic, environmental and cultural considerations” associated with the use of “advanced grid modernization technology” to improve the overall reliability and efficiency of the Hawaii electric system.

In its decision, the court determined that the Pono Power Coalition had failed to show that the project would cause water runoff problems or damage native vegetation as they had alleged. And importantly, the court’s decree also states that public agencies such as the PUC have an obligation to consider the impact of climate change in their decision making. The agency’s regulatory mission is broad, the opinion stated, and it must safeguard energy affordability as well as reliability as it attempts to reduce the state’s dependence on fossil fuels.

What about small-scale solar projects? State and federal incentive programs assist some homeowners to install solar panels on their rooftops. In fact, according to Hawaiian Electric, 20 percent of their customers already have rooftop solar.
Now you don’t even have to be a homeowner to tap into this abundant renewable resource. A HECO community-based renewable energy program allows renters and small businesses who are unable to install their own rooftop solar to benefit from locally-generated carbon-free energy.

Community-based renewable energy agreements, or “shared solar,” is a concept through which “subscribers” purchase an interest in the solar installation and, in return, receive a monthly credit on their electric bills based on their investment in the project. HECO is seeking photovoltaic developers to build small projects (up to 250 kilowatts) to be funded in this way. The application process is open to contractors until 2:00 p.m. on Tuesday, May 17.

“We’re excited to launch shared solar, designed to bring savings and a chance to participate in the renewable energy movement to many more customers,” said a press release from Lani Shinsato, the company’s director of customer energy resource programs. “To get the most out of shared solar, we need subscriber organizations–including nonprofits, homeowner associations and churches to get involved.” Organizations who think that they may be able to mobilize their members to participate can register at the shared solar portal, communityenergyhawaii.com.

For more information on the program, visit the utility’s community-based renewable energy site at hawaiianelectric.com/sharedsolar.

Dan Collins

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