Utilities Commission pauses solar farm plan

KAILUA-KONA — Opponents of a proposed 6.75 megawatt solar farm at Ocean View welcomed a decision by the Public Utilities Commission to temporarily halt the controversial project while the commission reviews a complaint filed against it.

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KAILUA-KONA — Opponents of a proposed 6.75 megawatt solar farm at Ocean View welcomed a decision by the Public Utilities Commission to temporarily halt the controversial project while the commission reviews a complaint filed against it.

The commission last Friday suspended an application by the Hawaii Electric Light Company to build an above-ground transmission line for a proposed substation that would support 27 Feed-In-Tariff solar projects.

That project would install tens of thousands of solar panels throughout 27 individual farms in and around Hawaiian Ocean View Ranchos. Each lot would be about 2 acres and produce 250 kilowatts each.

That would make them eligible for the Tier 2 Feed-In-Tariff program, which would allow developer SPI Solar to sell the power to the Hawaiian Electric Light Co. at a rate of 23.8 cents per kilowatt hour.

But opponents have said the Feed In Tariff was meant to encourage smaller projects, not large-scale operations.

Many residents voiced their opposition to the project while the application for the transmission line was pending. Former consumer advocate Jeff Ono also alleged developers took advantage of the law by breaking up the project into smaller farms so developers could avoid standard bidding protocol.

On Aug. 29, Ocean View residents Peter and Ann Bosted filed a complaint against the Hawaii Electric Company as administrator of the Feed-In-Tariff program and the Hawaii Electric Light Company.

Ann Bosted said they filed the complaint to ensure opposition couldn’t be dismissed because it wasn’t directly related to the transmission line. Filing a complaint about the whole project, she said, could “broaden the scope” of the concerns the PUC needed to address.

She said Thursday she expected the PUC to pause the project.

“It makes sense,” Ann Bosted said of the commission’s decision. “We expected them to do something like that.”

Bosted said she isn’t opposed to solar power but argued the FIT program “lost its way.”

“Why do we need this project? It’s just not needed,” she said. “Our town will get ruined for no good reason.”

In their complaint, the Bosteds argued that the Feed In Tariff permits “should not have been issued to the solar developers for a number of reasons.”

“The FIT project intended for Ocean View has completely confounded and disrupted the good intentions of the program,” stated the complaint. It alleged the process took advantage of the FIT program to circumvent zoning laws and the competitive bid process.

In the process of approving certain permits, the complaint argued, the PUC gave the impression that it wanted a diversity of ownership by promoting small installations over large operations.

“Instead, in Ocean View, technically, we now have 26 FIT projects aggregated to a utility scale project of 6.5 megawatts seemingly under the same parent company,” the complaint states.

That exceeds a limit of 5 megawatts for non-competitive bids, the complaint argued, meaning the project should have gone out to bid.

The Bosteds said the Feed-In-Tariff program doesn’t benefit Hawaii ratepayers, saying the projects weren’t “shovel-ready” as the program required and, had the permits been given to a diverse group of landowners, the installations could have been built sooner.

“We as ratepayers are paying top-dollar for a rush job,” Ann Bosted said Thursday.

Last Friday, the Public Utilities Commission agreed to put a hold on an application for a transmission line related to the solar projects, effectively stopping forward movement on the projects, until they resolve the Bosted complaint.

Given that the line and substation wouldn’t be needed but for the solar projects, the commission decided to table HELCO’s application until it can resolve complaints against the entire project.

Randy Iwase, chair of the Public Utilities Commission, said yesterday that decisions made in the Bosted complaint could affect the transmission line case. As result, he said, it would be “more prudent” to tackle that case first.

Iwase said the PUC will issue an order in the coming days advising HECO and HELCO, the respondents named in the Bosted complaint, that they have 20 days to respond to the complaints.

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“We’ll proceed from there,” Iwase said.

He added that the consumer advocate will also have the opportunity to weigh in on this case.

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