Solar energy initiatives spur industry growth in Hawaii

Jamie Winpenny

HONOLULU—Hawaii has long been a national leader in the generation and consumption of solar energy, and the state continues to be a concrete example of the growth of the solar energy industry in the United States.

According to Clean Energy Experts, approximately half of the solar water heaters sold in the United States before 2006 were installed here. In 2010, Hawaii had the second highest total of solar water heaters installed in the country.

While there are several technologies for using the sun’s energy, solar water heating is the most common. Photovoltaic (PV) converts solar energy directly into electricity, and can be “grid-connected,” allowing residential users to offset or eliminate the cost of electricity from the utility company. Concentrating solar power (CSP) systems use mirrors and lenses to focus sunlight into a beam of heat for use at a conventional power plant.

Shon Gregory of Surface Shield Roofing says his company’s business has geared more toward the requirements of commercial and residential clients who are using solar energy, or plan to in the future.

“I’d say it’s about half of our business,” he explains. With 20 years in the roofing and solar industries, Gregory is keenly aware of the increased integration of solar energy use in both the residential and commercial sectors.

Gregory works with a handful of solar contractors, and notes that “it makes more and more sense to go solar.”

Certainly, Hawaii’s climate makes it an ideal location for the use of solar energy technology. However, much of the growth in the solar energy industry here can be attributed to federal, State, and County incentives offered to residential and commercial users.

Most recently, Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed a bill into law that calls for the Public Utilities Commission to investigate the possible creation of a system by which residents and businesses can pay for the up-front installation costs of a PV system through their utility bill.

“The biggest obstacle that residents face when it comes to adopting clean energy is the upfront cost, and on-bill financing eliminates that.”

“The biggest obstacle that residents face when it comes to adopting clean energy is the upfront cost, and on-bill financing eliminates that,” said Blue Planet Foundation Executive Director Jeff Mikulina.

The cost of a residential solar hot water system averages about $2,000 after tax credits and rebates. Solar water heating is cheaper in Hawaii than anywhere else in the United States, due in part to the fact that freezing during the winter is not a factor here.

However, the installation of photovoltaic systems is more prohibitive at about $10,000, according to the Hawaiian Electric Company’s Peter Rosegg. Allowing homeowners to defray that cost will likely see a continued upward spike in photovoltaic installations in Hawaii. In 2009, Hawaii saw more per capita PV installations than did California.

Because Hawaii imports 90 percent of its energy needs, it comes as no surprise that we pay the highest electricity rates in the country. Fortunately, according to the Interstate Renewable Energy Council, the financial benefits of PV systems are more favorable here than in any other U.S. state.

The Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative seeks to meet 70 percent of the State’s energy needs through renewable and efficient means by the year 2030. The way in which Hawaii reaches that goal depends on how our islands’ residents are allowed to effectively take part in that process.

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