Going Off the Grid and the Solar Industry's Holy Grail

Island Pacific Energy

Major advances in battery storage technology, not to mention sharp cost reductions, could help light the way for Hawaii’s troubled solar industry. The path forward could, it seems increasingly plausible, involve do-it-yourself solar users disconnecting themselves from the power grid altogether, and still flourishing.

And while major questions remain about the cost, the technology and the pace of adaptation of off-the-grid solar, it is significant that there is a possible pathway forward.

The industry has created thousands of new jobs across the state and helped Hawaii meet its renewable energy goals, but it is suffering a period of sudden retrenchment after years of historic growth.

Solar sales began to decline for the first time just this year. Residential sales are down 9 percent compared to last year, while commercial sales have plummeted by 50 percent, according to statistics from Hawaii’s Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.

Now companies find themselves competing in a shrinking market as they wrestle with the limitations of a public utility that owns the power grids on Oahu, the Big Island and Maui County. The power company sometimes seems like the greatest obstacle to innovation because the electric company can only accommodate so much intermittent solar power on their grids before engineers fear that too much of the energy will cause power disruptions and put utility workers' safety at risk.

As the situation has worsened, some solar company executives have even warned of a possible collapse or at least a significant contraction of the industry.

Some prominent solar executives say that the moment of grid saturation is nearly here. “I’m super duper pessimistic,” Mark Duda, an executive at Honolulu-based RevoluSun, said at a panel discussion on the solar industry in downtown Honolulu on Thursday. “I think this is actually the event we have all been worried about in the past, but I think now we have hit it.”

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