n a comfortable house, on a pleasant street in Waiehu Terrace, Lilia Chong, 42, sits at a table with her laptop and some of the many files documenting her efforts to install a home photovoltaic (PV) system. Her paperwork is neat, arranged chronologically and dates back to January 2013, when she filed her first application.
That application was denied; she suspects it was because the capacity of her proposed system was a little over 10 kilowatts (kW).
On May 2, she submitted a second application for a 9.89 kW system and was advised on June 13 that Maui Electric Company (MECO) had completed her Initial Technical Review.
Lilia Chong of Waiehu Terrace is frustrated and angry as a result of her attempts to work with Maui Electric Company on the installation of a photovoltaic system at her home. Months past the response date, she still doesn’t have an answer from the company. Chong estimates she’s spent 200 to 250 hours on the application procedure. Throughout the process, she’s kept very detailed records and logs. She is shown her with some of her files and correspondence with the company
Her records show that on June 14, her contractor, Rising Sun Solar, gave approval to MECO to conduct a supplemental review and that the supplemental review should have been completed by July 15.
Sitting in her living room in early October, she points to the dates she had carefully blocked off on a calendar that shows the timeline for the project. She expected to have the PV system up and running long ago.
That isn't what happened. She still doesn't have a go-ahead from MECO, and she still doesn't have a straight answer on what is causing the delay or what she can do about it.
According to Chong, her interest in improving the energy efficiency of the home she shares with her family of six has been ongoing. Before beginning the PV process, she converted entirely to LED lighting "at $50 a bulb." She has also installed a solar water heater, a water-efficient toilet and an energy-efficient pool pump.
At the end of 2012, she began interviewing a variety of companies looking for a reputable PV contractor that offered attractive terms and would help her navigate the process. Her goal was to lower or eliminate her electric bill.
She also investigated how pay for it. She selected a lease-to-own option. That agreement, when in place, would run for 20 years with a buy-out possible at the end. She planned to finance it with a loan through her credit union. So in addition to the paperwork with MECO, there was also a significant amount of documentation required by the lender. That approval was only good for 30 days--now long past. If and when she gets the green light from MECO, she will have to reapply for the loan.
To be on the safe side, she also contacted the company that provides her homeowner's insurance to make sure her property would be covered in the event of a leak or other problems that could result from installing a PV system on the roof. That was also time-consuming.
Even though she knew it might take a while, the savings looked distinctly attractive. Her family currently pays about $700 a month to MECO for electricity. But once the PV system was installed, during the term of her loan (about seven years), she would pay less than that amount to her credit union. When her loan was paid off, she'd have 13 years with little or no electricity costs.
That's what she thought going in.
To date, she estimates that she's spent between "200 to 250 hours" just tracking the details of her application--with no end in sight.
On Sept. 29, Chong contacted the Maui Weekly by email. She wrote that she'd read an article ("Is Maui Electric 'Stalling' on Photovoltaic Installations?") in the paper's Aug. 22-28, 2013 issue.
"I am living the nightmare," she said, "so it certainly hit home."
"Long story short, my contractor [Rising Sun Solar] gave them [MECO] approval to do a supplemental review back on June 14 Tomorrow, it will be 75 days or 55 days past the date that I should have gotten an answer."
PV contractor Brad Albert, co-owner of Rising Sun Solar, commented on her situation by email:
"This [delay] was not typical until June or July. MECO consistently responded within the Rule 14H interconnection timelines [30 business days] for application review if the circuit is not highly saturated with PV systems. According to our time estimates, Mrs. Chong entered a supplemental review on June 17, 2013, and response should have come by July 20 that would have either required the customer to pay for an IRS [Interconnection Requirement Study] or given approval to interconnect system.
"When we were seeing this application and others like it going beyond the typical timeframes, we scheduled a meeting with MECO on Aug. 15. At that meeting, MECO said that they are aware of the delays and they are working on it and to 'please be patient.' Since then, we have gotten approval on many systems that were stalled, but unfortunately, not Mrs. Chong's system.
"There is no new norm yet regarding timeframes for MECO approvals," Albert continued, "but we are seeing MECO create more approvals on circuits that would have formerly required an IRS study. MECO also did release a more informative circuit penetration map that shows that Mrs. Chong's area is over 100 percent of minimum load.
"My guess is that since Mrs. Chong's circuit is over 100 percent of minimum load, [it] has some more complex technical concerns. Rising Sun remains hopeful that these issues will be able to be resolved and Mrs. Chong will be able to interconnect in the next 6 to 12 months."
As for what she could do about it, he suggested Chong "contact MECO in writing and request a response. If no response is given or the customer isn't satisfied with the response, she can write a formal complaint to the PUC. I would also recommend asking if she has been put in a queue for interconnection based on her application date. Rising Sun Solar will do all of this as well, but it is often times better if it comes from the customer."
Chong did contact MECO directly and frequently, but to no avail.
She was particularly frustrated that "no one ever seems to respond to me, to answer the phone or to provide sufficient information."
Chong found her dealings with an employee in MECO's alternative energy section particularly difficult. So, she visited MECO on Sept. 6 and also left a message on the employee's voice mail.
The MECO staff member returned Chong's call and they discussed aspects of the situation. The employee said that she would get back to Chong on that Friday afternoon or by Monday, Sept. 9.
When she did not receive a call, Chong called the employee on Sept. 9, 10, 11 and 12. Each time she left a message and sent a follow-up email.
On Sept. 13, she went to MECO again and spoke to the employee in person. The MECO staffer indicated that Chong should expect a letter--which she still has not received as of publication date.
Commenting on that conversation, Chong said, "It raised more questions than it answered."
Months have passed beyond the response date set by the PUC, and Chong still does not know where she stands.
"As of Sept. 29, I still have not received a letter of notification of where my application is at--approved, stalled or what have you," said Chong. "The frustration is that they don't say anything. They don't communicate."
She also found the information posted on the MECO Website written in technical language that is "incomprehensible to the average person."
Though a reply from MECO was slow in coming (see "Written Customer Complaint Response from MECO" at this link www.mauiweekly.com/page/content.detail/id/511810/MECO-s-Response-to-Customer-s-Questions.html?nav=13), others contacted by the Maui Weekly responded more rapidly.
Doug McLeod, energy commissioner for the County of Maui Office of Economic Development, answered the Maui Weekly's inquiries in less than an hour:
"Shortly after your last solar article was published, the utility announced major changes to their interconnection process for solar PV. The changes are substantial and include the following:
"One system for all companies in the Hawaiian Electric family. The $3,000 mini-IRS was unique to Maui. It is now gone from the process entirely for the average residential system (defined as less than 10kW on single phase service).
"The location value maps provided by MECO have just been updated in the last week, and for the most part, the comparison of 'how much is too much' when it comes down to solar on the circuit will be a comparison to 100 percent of daytime minimum load.
"Comparing against 100 percent of daytime load makes sense in a way that none of the prior standards did.
"Right now, we still oversimplify the number we are comparing to the daytime minimum load," McLeod continued. "We just add up the maximum output from all of the PVs on that circuit. By using the maximum output, we oversimplify by treating all of the solar as mounted flat. In reality, rooftop-mounted PV is often mounted on different 'faces' and would not all be seeing max output at the same time.
"In our opinion, one of the reasons for the changes was that MECO was simply overwhelmed with paperwork, McLeod wrote. "Many people found that MECO was not responding in the time periods they were supposed to. We experienced the same with the county solar project, and we are optimistic the new changes will dramatically reduce the number of IRS in Maui County."
Brooke K Kane, administrative director for the state Public Utilities Commission, was another who replied. He wrote: "I'm sorry to hear about Ms. Chong's situation. Here is a link to our Webpage that provides instructions and forms for Ms. Chong to submit an informal complaint with our office: puc.hawaii.gov/filing/complaint/informal-complaints."
"Please note that the informal complaint needs to be filed by the account holder, i.e., Ms. Chong," the email continued. "Once we receive the informal complaint from Ms. Chong, it will be assigned to one of our staff for handling.
After the Maui Weekly forwarded the information to Chong, she filled out the complaint form and sent it in to the PUC. "Thank you," she emailed the Maui Weekly, "for assistance and making my voice louder. It took me another three hours to get all the pertinent information laid out as 'exhibits' for my timeline, but at least it's even more organized."
Lila Chong is still waiting, and she's not alone. In a follow-up phone conversation on Oct. 3, Chong's contractor said, "I have over a hundred customers like Mrs. Chong who are in different stages of interconnection limbo. They don't know whether they will be able to connect, whether their application will go up or down or what it will cost."
Chong said she feels that a "hotline" staffed by a live person who actually answers the phone and follows up would go a long way to helping her and others with similar problems resolve their difficulties. She's also talking to her attorney.