Star Advertiser | Kathryn Mykleseth
When Hawaiian Electric Co. began slowing rooftop solar installations last year, it pushed energy companies, legislators and residents to seek out other options, including a growing interest in going off the grid.
There are 4,500 people on Oahu waiting for approval for rooftop solar systems as a result of a September 2013 rule change where HECO required customers and contractors to be OK’d by the utility before installing photovoltaic panels. Some customers have waited as much as nine months for approval and are afraid they may miss out on lucrative tax credits if they don’t act fast.
“We hear from a growing number of customers looking for off-grid solutions,” said Chris DeBone, managing partner at KumuKit and Hawaii Energy Connection.
Local solar companies such as KumuKit, Distributed Energy partrners, and Revolusun are in the process of offering solar systems that are linked to batteries.
In a nutshell, the sun charges the batteries, which will then be used at night and cloudy days to provide power to the home. In certain cases, these systems could enough power to go off grid, as long as energy use is modest. In most cases though, these batteries would be used in hand in hand with the grid when the batteries are depleted.
Using such a system is called a “non-export” system, because none of the power generated from solar will be brought back to the grid. Such a system will avoid the problem which has led HECO to slow down PV installations since too much exported solar causes instability to the grid.
“The time is right” for battery systems, said Mark Duda, Hawaii PV Coalition president and principal with Distributed Energy Partners. “There wasn’t a marketplace need. When they had an option, it wasn’t compelling to seek out storage.”
HECO’s difficult approval system is pushing customers away from using the utility.
Representative Cynthia Thielen (R, Kailua-Kaneohe Bay) has said that the off grid system may become a problem for the company in the future. “They are clinging to a very outdated model and they absolutely must change their corporate plan,” Thielen said. “I think ultimately they will go out of business.”
RevoluSun installed less than a dozen energy storage systems that allowed customers to live off grid since 2009. In the last month, almost 50 customers have called the company looking to take their systems off-grid, said Colin Yost, principal and general counsel at RevoluSun. “We are actually developing some completely off-grid systems right now and testing them. The technology has been changing rapidly. Yesterday, we met with another manufacturer,” Yost said. Energy storage is and will be fundamental, Duda said.
“There is too much uncertainty around interconnection and too many options for battery storage,” Duda said. “No matter which direction this goes, you need storage.”
Solar companies do not advertise off-grid options due cost, as well as the anticipation for better technology in the near future.
“Most of the battery systems you see generally have to be replaced far sooner than the PV system itself and can make the whole thing less affordable,” said Yost. “It’s getting close but we aren’t comfortable offering it on a large scale yet.”
The initial prices for an off-the-grid system are still very expensive, but because of high electricity rates residents can save money over time if they go off-grid, Yost said. “Hawaii has reached a grid-parity, meaning an off-grid system is just as cheap or even cheaper than getting energy from the utility and the reason for that primarily is because Hawaii’s electricity is so expensive,” Yost said. “Once the technology gets better, if the prices stay high, you will see an exodus of customers who all leave the grid entirely.”
Hawaii residents pay three times the national average, about 38.66 cents per kilowatt-hour in June, compared to the nations’ average, about 12.97 per kilowatt-hour according to U.S. Energy Information Administration. This is due in part to the high cost of fuel used for power generation.
A 30 percent federal tax credit is available to those who choose to install PV systems, which ends December 31, 2016. The state tax credit for PV systems, for 35 percent up to $5000 per system, but does not have an expiration date. Customers can receive these tax credits even if their solar systems are not connected to the grid.
Going off the grid is not for everyone, however. Current battery technology is not sufficient to power a house with the amount of electricity usage the average resident is used to.
It requires certain lifestyle changes, said DeBone of KumuKit. “It is a lifestyle commitment and change that people must be prepared for. People are very used to having the energy they want in the amount they want,” DeBone said. When you are dependant on the sun and batteries, you may not always have the power you want. Kohl Christensen, a big-wave surfer sponsored by the clothing maker Patagonia and a partner at the local energy company Bonterra Solar, has been living off the grid for about eight years. Christensen uses a septic tank, a well, a solar water heater, solar panels, 16 six-volt batteries, generator and propane tank for his 3-acre property in Waialua.
“If there was a better way to store the power I think everybody would go off grid. It would be easy for everybody if it were affordable,” Christensen said. “The panels are cheap, the invertors are cheap everything about the system is pretty straight forward and not that expensive anymore. The battery storage is kind of the biggest issue.”
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