Hawaii’s popular rooftop solar incentives winding down

Published 9:28 am Tuesday, July 12, 2016

HONOLULU (AP) — Hawaii is a national leader in rooftop solar power, but despite the state’s ambitious goal of using only renewable energy by 2045, people are being shut out of solar incentive programs because of limits set by the state.

On Maui, a program that reimburses customers who supply energy to the grid reached its maximum in June. The cap likely will be reached on Oahu — the state’s most populated island — by the end of summer, experts say.

“We were going along fine at a pretty fair clip doing exactly everything that people in public policy in Hawaii want us to do, which is to get this stuff on people’s roofs so that we use less oil,” said Rick Reed, president of the Hawaii Solar Energy Association. “And then all of a sudden … boom. Things change overnight, and it’s been incredibly disruptive.”

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In October, Hawaii ended its popular net energy metering program, which refunded customers at the full retail rate for electricity they supplied to the grid. The customer grid supply program that replaced it offers a lower reimbursement rate — and it’s filling up.

Critics say capping the amount of people who can participate boosts profits for the utility, which makes less money when people supply their own electricity.

“It comes down to a financial issue,” said state Rep. Chris Lee, chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Environmental Protection. “The more distributed generation, the more power that individuals generate themselves, the less of a customer base the utility ultimately has in the long run.”

Around the country, several states that offer tax credits for solar installations have been ending programs or allowing them to expire. Utilities have lobbied lawmakers and regulators nationwide to reduce incentives, arguing the solar industry can stand on its own.

In Hawaii, 14 percent of all new construction costs in 2015 came from solar installations on homes, according to the Hawaii State Energy Office. But in the past six months, 88 percent of solar companies polled by the Hawaii State Energy Association reported job losses.

“Folks have gone out of business,” Reed said. “There’s some walking zombie companies that are barely squeaking along.”