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Solar incentives recharged: New programs offer credit for exporting energy

Hawaii solar customers can still receive credit for supplying solar energy to the power grid after the Public Utilities Commission approved new solar incentive programs earlier this month.

On Oct. 20, the state Public Utilities Commission announced a series of new incentive programs to take the place of previous programs that were discontinued after demand outstripped the grid’s capacity.

Of the commission’s two new programs, the most sophisticated is the Smart Export program, which allows solar users to store energy within batteries during the day and export that stored energy to the grid during peak usage hours, typically in the evenings. Energy exported to the Big Island’s grid through this program is subject to a credit of 11 cents per kilowatt-hour.

The other program is referred to as Controllable Customer Grid Supply, or CGS+, and is effectively a continuation of the commission’s previous grid supply program, which reached its energy limit in September. This program allows customers to export energy directly to the grid during the daytime while allowing electric utility providers to curtail grid supply at certain times to retain grid stability.

Cindy Varner, operations manager at Laakea Solar Technology, said the latter program is likely to prove more beneficial for consumers in the short term.

“Other than the payback rate, it’s not that different from the other programs that have been available,” Varner said.

Marco Mangelsdorf, president of Hilo solar provider ProVision Solar, agreed, saying the added value of CGS+ comes from the fact that customers do not need to purchase capacitor systems and are able to export energy outside of peak grid usage hours.

Mangelsdorf said he thinks Big Island residents interested in a solar installation would benefit more from the CGS+ program than Smart Export based on its more flexible export periods, even though the rate of compensation for CGS+ — 10.55 cents per khw — is lower than that of the latter on the Big Island.

“More options are always better than fewer,” Mangelsdorf said. “For me, CGS+ was a pleasant surprise. There was not much discussion, as far as I know, about another grid supply program.”

In addition, the grid will provide better support for CGS+ than Smart Export. The grid’s cap for Smart exports is set at 5 megawatts, while the cap for CGS+ exports is at 7 megawatts.

Shannon Tangonan, Hawaiian Electric Companies spokeswoman, estimated that a 7-megawatt cap will be able to serve 1,000 systems. Currently, 519 systems are enrolled in previous grid-supply programs.

Varner said that, in many cases, solar battery storage systems significantly increase the cost of a solar installation and often require lifestyle changes that many people are not willing to accommodate.

However, Varner suggested the Smart Export program might be a safer long-term investment than CGS+.

Although enrollees in the previous grid supply program will still be able to export energy to the grid for the next five years, at the higher credit rate of the previous program, it is unknown what will happen to grid supply customers after that.

“I expect that will be up to the PUC,” Varner said. “And honestly, in five years, that’s probably when Smart Export will really be viable.”

The commission also included in its announcement a provision to activate “advanced inverter” functions in consumer solar energy systems, in order to provide additional grid stability. Varner said such technology — which converts the direct current generated by solar panels into the alternating current used by the grid without requiring deactivation during grid disturbances — represents the forefront of solar technology in the country.

Although customer incentives for solar installations have lessened — a previous solar program, net energy metering, credited users the full retail rate for exported energy — Varner remained optimistic about solar’s popularity.

“We’re not going to go back to the halcyon days of 2012, but solar’s always going to be viable,” Varner said.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

 

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