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Solar-energy panels have become a common sight on Hawaii rooftops, thanks to our abundant sunshine, improved technology and government incentives — not to mention the most expensive electricity costs in the nation. In fact, 17% of the state’s electricity comes from solar, and Hawaii leads the nation in per-capita rooftop installations.
Certainly, that’s a good thing. Hawaii will never reach its goal of 100% renewable energy by 2045 without more solar energy from small-scale sources. State and county policies rightfully encourage this approach.
Now comes the next step: a broader adoption of stored solar power, aka solar systems with batteries. Such systems can store energy for use during peak hours or emergencies, whether the sun is shining or not. They could shore up Oahu’s electricity grid relatively quickly — not only for the long term, but more immediately, ahead of the September 2022 shutdown of the 180-megawatt (MW) coal plant operated by AES Corp. near Kalaeloa.
Thanks to regulatory approval and an incentive program from Hawaiian Electric, consumer interest in solar-plus-battery systems is growing, and the local industry is pushing hard to capitalize on it.
Unlike elsewhere, Hawaii “is in a class of its own, with roughly 80% of all residential PV systems installed in 2020, and 40% of all non-residential PV installs paired with storage,” according to a July report from Berkeley Lab.
But there’s a snag: obtaining permits to install the systems. Industry representatives say the city’s Department of Planning and Permitting (DPP), which issues the permits, is moving too slowly to meet the demand — and resists their recommendations to speed up the process. They say project approvals can take as long as four to six months.
“There’s been tons of interest,” said Brian Gold, president of the Hawaii Solar Energy Association. “The industry would be twice as busy if DPP was operating in a more streamlined manner.”
Yes, Gold has a business interest in persuading DPP to clear a path. But he also has an important point: Clean energy is a big public priority these days. Whatever the cause, this logjam needs to be broken.
The state Public Utilities Commission, anticipating the coal plant shutdown, approved Hawaiian Electric’s Battery Bonus Program, which offers a cash incentive to customers who install batteries with a solar-energy system, in exchange for using or exporting electricity from their batteries during peak energy-use hours of 6 to 8 p.m. The program is expected to generate up to 50 MW of electricity.
Likewise, the city has prioritized such clean-energy projects. Last year, the city implemented Ordinance 20-44, which requires approval or rejection within 14 days of receiving a completed application for consumer-sized installations.
Gold’s group and DPP Director Dean Uchida have exchanged a flurry of letters debating the finer points of perceived roadblocks: wiring up multi-unit dwellings (more complicated than single-family homes, DPP says); the time it takes for an application to be deemed “complete,” thus starting the 14-day clock; in-person versus online applications; gathering the required records from the city’s files; and so on.
None of these issues should be insurmountable, and DPP should take a proactive stance with the industry in working through them.
Granted, it won’t be easy. Uchida is less than a year on the job, having inherited an understaffed department with a reputation for sluggishness and inefficiency. DPP is working on a wholesale replacement of antiquated systems to provide online services that are transparent, easier to use and more automated, Uchida said.
But even in the midst of reforms, DPP needs to be flexible enough to respond effectively to current market demands. And these days, the market demands more clean energy systems, rooftop by rooftop.