Last year, the Solar Summit drew about 60 people. So, according to Teena Rasmussen, economic development coordinator for Maui County, it seemed like a good idea to hold another one this year to keep people abreast of changes and opportunities in the field of solar power--specifically, photovoltaic (PV) generated power.
Maui County again partnered with the Sustainable Living Institute of Maui (SLIM) at the University of Hawai'i Maui College (UHMC) and planning began. What was not planned was a five-fold increase in the number of people wanting to attend. More than 300 people registered in advance, so the Friday, May 24, event was moved from the Pilina Building multi-purpose room on the UHMC campus to a larger venue at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center's Castle Theater.
The overwhelming interest in this year's Solar Summit has generated discussions among summit planners that the time may have arrived for a serious consideration for an international energy conference on Maui within the next two to three years.
Doug McLeod, the county’s energy commissioner, said the county is issuing more solar permits and MECO is issuing more solar pre-approvals than in 2012, which was a record year.
In an interview before the summit began, Mayor Alan Arakawa said, "You have to realize that Maui is so far ahead, because we are already implementing a lot of polices that others are only thinking about. The conversions to alternative energy that we are making are head and shoulders above others we are so far ahead on so many visionary activities, it makes me absolutely proud to be from Maui."
Commenting on his invitation to the 2013/2nd International Conference on Energy and Environmental Protection (ICEEP 2013) held in Guilin, China, in April, the mayor said, "The fact that I was invited--the mayor of Maui County--with world leaders, presidents of countries, tells you that they recognize that what we are doing is advanced."
Although the program was expanded by 30 minutes, even that was too short of a time to cover in detail all the topics offered to the audience.
In addition to opening comments by Mayor Arakawa, the program included a Maui Electric Company (MECO) update on its renewable energy status and an "Ask the Experts" panel that included participants from MECO, the Maui County Department of Public Works and representatives of various solar companies.
Information was also provided on state solar tax credits--a key factor in the continued strength of the solar energy market--and the development of proactive reliability standards to ensure the stability of the electric grid as sustainable energy resources are brought into the system.
Responding to questions regarding stories about people spending $3,000 for a MECO connectivity study to determine that it was safe to connect their PV system to the power grid and then being turned down after spending the money, Doug McLeod, the county's energy commissioner, said "In fact, we [the county] are issuing more solar permits and MECO is issuing more solar pre-approvals than last year, and last year was already a record."
In 2012, the county issued 2,155 PV permits, and of those, 1,983 were for residential installations. So far in 2013, there have been 593 PV permits issued; 560 of those residential.
"It's not too late," McClure said. "The process takes longer than it used to, but there is still a state tax credit, a federal tax credit, the prices are still low. You just need to be prepared now for a process that takes months instead of weeks. But it's well worth it. Don't give up. This is a doable thing."
Steven Rymsha, a supervisor at MECO's Renewable Energy Services, told the summit audience in his "MECO Update" presentation that "No one has been denied who has gone through the process and no circuits are closed."
Kevin Lawrence, a sales and design consultant for Alternate Energy Inc., provided another view on the ease of installing PV and working with MECO.
"We're losing money," Lawrence said. "The customer wants to write you a check for assistance. Then you get the business on the books only to be told 'no' by Maui Electric."
"The rules they have in place are counterproductive to solar growth on the island because so many areas are shut down," Lawrence said. "All of Wailuku Heights, all of Kealani, all of Maui Lani, sections of Pukalani, sections of Lahaina are shut down. That means they are not allowing any more PV installations on that circuit."
To solve the problem, Lawrence wants to see an increase in sustainable energy resources allowed to integrate into the Maui power grid--from the existing 15 percent to "50 percent of the available feeder capacity on the circuits for residential systems 10 kW and under."
Lawrence's suggestion is somewhat supported by the recommendations of the Reliability Standards Working Group (RSWG), a task force set up by the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC), which has regulatory power over the energy industry. The purpose of the RSWG was to develop recommendations to deal proactively with integration and alternative energy growth issues rather than on a reactive basis.
That group has proposed a 75 percent of peak load standard for renewable energy source integration into the power grid.
On April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day celebrations were held in a worldwide call for the creation of a sustainable economy and the protection of the environment. It seemed simple. Just do the right thing. But, of course, it was not that simple.
Now, in 2013, there are laws, regulations, lobbyists, interest groups and courts involved--much more complicated and with a substantial cost attached as well.
Summits, like those held by the county and SLIM, provide a public service by giving us one place each year where we can be brought up to date on energy issues and what is being done to address them.
In the midst of it all, it's still important to be reminded that the goals set forth in 1970 are still worth striving for and merit working hard to achieve.