Hawaii solar sector on the 'brink of collapse' as employment dips 42%

Dive Brief:

  • Hawaii's solar industry appears to be in trouble, with employment in the sector taking a hit since the end of net retail rate net metering and the state's largest utility reaching the capacity cap on a popular successor program.
  • According to the Hawaii Solar Energy Association (HSEA), there are more than two dozen solar companies operating and almost all have cut jobs since the state lowered remuneration rates last year. The sector has lost about 450 jobs, with total employment now just above 600.
  • The Honolulu Star Advertiser reports Hawaiian Electric Co. has now reached a cap on its grid-supply program in all of its service territories, meaning new customers no longer have an option to sell excess capacity back to the utility. A less popular self-supply program remains, but relatively few customers have opted for it. 

Dive Insight:

In HSEA's September monthly update, the nonprofit warned that Oahu was the only island in Hawaii where there was still room for grid-tied solar systems. At the time, submitted applications totaled 31 MW, or about 87% of an interim cap. "Activity will sharply decline if the interim 35 MW cap is not raised," the group said.

That warning has now come to pass, the Star Advertiser reports. Oahu hit its 25 MW limit sometime last month; Hawaii Island and Maui County had previously reached their caps. 

“The abrupt end of grid-supply has pushed the local solar industry to the brink of collapse, and swift action is needed to prevent more layoffs and harm to customers,” HSEA President Rick Reed said.

Employment in the state's solar sector has been in decline since the state ended net metering last year.

In October 2015 the Public Utilities Commission replaced net metering with two options, including the grid-supply program which credited customers at a rate below retail. A second self-supply option, with no grid-export capabilities, often requires storage and for residential customers has a minimum bill of $25.

HSEA said in September that the self-supply program had grown to 33 applications, but would need storage incentives and time-of-use rates to see significant growth.

Solar advocates have asked regulators to revise the program and lift the caps, but Hawaiian Electric, the dominant utility, has called for caution.

In May, a spokesperson told Utility Dive there were over 3,000 applications for rooftop PV that we have approved that have not been installed yet, and that if some of those customers did not follow through, space for new customers could be opened up. About 17% of Hawaiian Electric customers have rooftop solar, and their generation can overload some local circuits on the utility's grid. 

"We believe any increase should be limited in scope and consistent with the PUC’s guidance on this issue and State law," HECO spokesperson Darren Pai wrote in an email at the time. "We recommend that projects under any increased Grid Supply program capacity be right-sized help maintain safe, reliable service and allow for maximum customer participation."

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