Consumer advocate criticizes HOVE solar farm plan

OCEAN VIEW — The state’s consumer advocate is siding with Ocean View residents in criticism of a plan to build acres of commercial solar panels in a residential area.

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OCEAN VIEW — The state’s consumer advocate is siding with Ocean View residents in criticism of a plan to build acres of commercial solar panels in a residential area.

Consumer advocate Jeff Ono’s statement of position released Thursday said the developers gamed the system by breaking the project up into smaller farms so it wouldn’t have to follow the bidding protocol that normally accompanies commercial solar operations.

Echoing criticism that Ranchos residents have been voicing for months, Ono raised flags about the project’s impacts on area residents and questioned whether the solar farms are in the public’s interest. Ono also questioned delays in completion of the project, first pursued five years ago.

The plan by SPI Solar to construct 27 farms in and around Hawaiian Ocean View Ranchos has been opposed by scores of homeowners, a former Public Utilities Commission chairwoman and other energy experts. They contend the project is a detriment to the community and forces the island’s utility company to buy the electricity at a high, fixed rate that is meant to benefit much smaller projects but in this case would give big business a break while soaking ratepayers.

Ono’s position was released as the PUC considers whether to approve construction of an overhead transmission line needed to service the installations.

“This is exactly what we residents want. We have been denied due process,” said Ranchos’ Ann Bosted, in applause of the advocate’s position.

The banks of panels — each covering about 2 acres — would generate a peak of 250 kilowatts apiece, for a total of 6.75 megawatts. That capacity exceeds the 5-megawatt limit where a power purchase agreement must be negotiated between the solar developer and the utility company that buys the electricity, Ono noted.

“In this instance, it is apparent that the Solar Project Owners effectively ‘gamed’ the FIT process in order to avoid going through the more rigorous competitive bidding framework,” Ono wrote.

Residents contend the project takes advantage of state and federal tax credits and the Feed-In Tariff program where HELCO pays for the electricity at a pre-set rate of 23.6 cents per kilowatt hour. Opponents say that rate should be much lower if it is to benefit the ratepayer.

“The developer will create a giant project, which should have a negotiated rate,” said Bosted, who has spearheaded opposition to the project. “But because it is in the FIT program it somehow qualifies for the higher rates. Again, the ratepayer must pay.”

The consumer advocate recommended that the proposed overhead line be buried to reduce community impacts, a $1.37 million undertaking that is eight times more costly than mounting lines on poles. The solar developer should also use an escrow account or performance bonds to assure it will cover the cost of removing the solar farms down the road so that expense doesn’t fall on ratepayers, according to the CA.

With frustration running high among residents, Ono also recommended security measures to guard against vandalism of the infrastructure.

The position statement is just the latest in a saga of opposition to the solar project, which residents say will reduce property values and create fire danger. Because homeowners had no say beforehand on whether the project could move ahead, Naalehu Rep. Richard Creagan introduced legislation last session that would have forced large solar projects to get a special use permit from the county, opening up the process to local discussion.

The bill died during last-minute haggling in conference committees, in part because opponents felt it would hinder the push for more renewable energy in the state.

Marco Mangelsdorf is president of Hilo-based Pro Vision Solar Inc. and director of the Hawaii Island Energy Cooperative. He told West Hawaii Today that commercial solar power is now being sold to the state’s utility companies at around 14 cents per kilowatt hour under negotiated power purchase agreements.

“There was a time for FIT and the time is long gone,” he said. “It’s not in the ratepayer’s or HELCO’s interest to subsidize these projects.”

The Feed-In Tariff program was launched in 2012 to help small scale renewable energy projects come on line more quickly, but abuses of the system have since been widely reported, with large developers dominating the scene with projects that seek to benefit from a program intended to help the little guy.

“The FIT process was deemed necessary at the time to encourage renewable energy project development, but the need for FIT projects, at compensation rates that are no longer reasonable, may not be consistent with the public interest at this time,” Ono concurred in his position letter.

SPI Solar did not respond to a request for comment for this article and has not answered phone and email queries from the newspaper over a period of months.

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The project owners have said they have decided to participate in a community giveback program with the goal of benefiting Ocean View residents and the state’s clean energy goals, but details aren’t yet clear, according to PUC documents.

The consumer advocate, Ono said, “is very concerned that the 27 solar project owners have not made greater efforts to conduct outreach and follow up to address the concerns raised in the community.”

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