Big Island shared solar projects to help low and moderate income electricity customers
July 14, 2023, 1:00 AM HST
Low and moderate income electricity customers in Kaʻū, North Kona and South Kohala could save up to 15% on their energy costs starting as early as next year thanks to several “shared solar” projects now under development on the Big Island.
Three of the projects — one in Nāʻālehu and two others north of Kailua-Kona — will provide a combined 9 megawatts of electricity to Hawaiian Electric’s Big Island power grid. Last fall, Hawaiian Electric selected Boston-based Nexamp — a nationwide solar, battery storage and clean energy company — to develop and build the projects.
They are among the first projects selected islandwide by the utility as part of the second phase of the state Community-Based Renewable Energy Program.
The program, also referred to as shared solar, was established in 2015 by the Hawaiʻi Legislature and signed into law as Act 100 by former Gov. David Ige. It is designed to promote broader participation in renewable energy projects by allowing electricity customers to purchase shares in a renewable energy facility to offset their monthly energy consumption via a credit on their utility bills.
The program helps electricity customers who rent, live in apartment complexes or can’t afford the upfront costs of solar installation and have not been able to access rooftop solar by allowing them to benefit from energy generated by nearby solar facilities.
Once a project is up and running, customers can subscribe to receive credit on their monthly electric bills based on their level of participation.
After years of working out the program’s details, it was approved in December 2017 by the Hawai’i Public Utilities Commission and phase one began in 2018. The first phase included only projects developed by private companies and organizations. In phase two, Hawaiian Electric is also now able to develop its own projects and recruit subscribers under certain circumstances.
The second phase, which began in April 2020, also places special emphasis on opportunities for low to moderate-income residential customers to participate
The Nexamp projects on the Big Island are part of seven selected last fall by Hawaiian Electric. The others include three on Maui and another on Oʻahu.
They were the first on each of those islands selected to offer the shared solar program to help lower the electric bills of customers who meet low and moderate income requirements and are unable to install privately-owned rooftop solar.
Each of Nexamp’s projects on the Big Island is expected to generate 3 megawatts of power and include battery storage. The battery storage systems also will be capable of “Black Start,” meaning they can provide energy to the grid in the event of a systemwide blackout or other disruption.
The Kaʻū project, named Nāʻālehu Solar, will be located on a 22-acre parcel on private land off Waiohinu Spur Road outside Nāʻālehu. The North Kona projects, collectively called Kalaoa Solar, will be constructed on about 47 acres of Hawaiian Home Lands property off Queen Ka‘ahumanu Highway north of Kailua-Kona, mauka (mountainside) of the Hawai‘i Ocean Science and Technology Park and Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawai‘i Authority.
The project sites were selected based on landowners willing to lease the land for renewable energy during the next 20 years, availability of the necessary grid infrastructure and interconnection points, solar production and low visibility, as well as cultural and environmental considerations.
Construction on the projects is planned to begin this year. Nāʻālehu Solar should be operational by July 1 of next year. Kalaoa Solar won’t be far behind, estimated to be up and running by Nov. 1, 2025.
Savings can vary depending on electric rates, seasonal variability of solar power and electricity consumption.
Priority during the first three months of operation will be given to subscribers who who live adjacent to each project and meet the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s threshold for low and moderate income. If not fully subscribed after that initial period, subscriptions will be opened to all low and moderate income customers on the island.
“Ultimately, these projects will help the Big Island move closer to its sustainability goals, reduce reliance on fossil fuels and provide cost savings to those who can benefit the most,” Nexamp Communication Manager Keith Hevenor said.
According to Nexamp, each of the projects has the capacity to offset the electricity demands of up to 600 homes and 60 nonprofits or small businesses based on an average 3 kilowatt subscription per household and 20 kilowatts per business.
“Dedicated to low- and moderate-income residents, each of these shared solar projects will ensure equal access to participate and lower their electric costs while reducing the islands’ fossil fuel dependence,” said Nexamp Chief Executive Officer Zaid Ashai in a Nov. 22, 2022, press release announcing the Hawaiʻi projects.
Nexamp, which has offices in Honolulu, began providing solar energy solutions throughout the United States in 2007 and has shared solar projects in a dozen states. Those facilities generate about 1 gigawatt of renewable energy and serve more than 70,000 residential and business customers.
Hevenor said part of what sets the company apart from competitors is that it approaches each shared solar project with the goal of being a member of the community. The company is the long-term owner and operator for all of its projects, handling the development, design, construction, operation and maintenance in-house, including the enrollment and service of all of its customers.
Nexamp hosted in-person community meetings for all three projects in January and a second online meeting update for the Nāʻālehu project on June 22. Another online meeting is planned for July 25 for the Kalaoa projects.
“We have received a lot of helpful feedback as part of our community outreach efforts,” Hevenor said, adding curious residents have asked insightful questions about the process and want to make sure the company and the projects are following all regulations so there are no negative cultural or environmental impacts.
The company also plans to have quarterly community meetings up through commercial operation of the projects and created dedicated pages on its website for each that feature project details, timelines and community meeting recordings.
Hawaiian Electric also selected five more shared solar projects earlier this year, including four on the Big Island. Two are being co-developed by Pivot Energy and Arion Energy in Kaʻū and the other two by Waikōloa Community Solar, which will be located in Waikōloa Village.
Those projects are expected to be operational sometime next year or in 2026 and will provide a total of 6 megawatts of power to the Big Island electric grid. None of those projects include battery storage.
For more information about Hawaiian Electric’s shared solar program and how it works, click here.