In the Oct. 10-16 issue, the Maui Weekly covered the plight of MECO consumer Lilia Chong and her protracted effort to install PV on her home in Waiehu Terrace. It described how delays and policy changes made her life a nightmare for months on end (tinyurl.com/kawwxeo). This article continues the story of what happened to Mrs. Chong and 149 others Maui residents like her caught in MECO's "PV Limbo."
On Wednesday, Oct. 16, Maui Electric Company's (MECO) top management, led by company president Sharon Suzuki, hosted three meetings at MECO headquarters in Kahului related to photovoltaic (PV) system installation. The purpose of these events was to confirm that 10 of the companies 143 electrical circuits had reached saturation, and that no more PV would be installed on those circuits for next 12 to 18 months, until upgrades could be engineered and carried out. The company cited "safety" as their overriding concern.
In a letter to affected customers dated Oct. 10, the company wrote that individual consumers who wanted to go forward with PV would be expected to pay their pro-rata share of infrastructure improvements to the circuits. These costs were estimated at $600 to $1600 per kW. Since many home PV systems are about 10kW, the estimated pass-through costs are likely to be in the $6,000 to $16,000 range.
Lilia Chong, a Waiehu Terrace consumer (second from right), met with MECO executives (left to right) Sharon Suzuki, president; Matt McNeff, manager renewable energy services; and Steven Rymsha, energy projects supervisor, to discuss the delays in her PV installation.
The Maui Weekly attended a morning meeting in the MECO engineering conference room with Maui consumer Lilia Chong, who had earlier complained about long delays and the refusal of the company to provide her with information on the status of her application, despite repeated inquiries. She was also dismayed when MECO announced retroactive rule changes that adversely affected her project. She has since filed a complaint with the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC).
Also present were MECO President Sharon Suzuki, Renewable Energy Manager Matthew McNeff, and Renewable Energy Projects Supervisor Steven Rymsha. This meeting was initiated by Rymsha to discuss issues raised by Chong in her earlier dealings with the company.
The Maui Weekly also attended an evening meeting attended by an estimated 50 consumers who found themselves in a similar situation. The company said that a total of 149 potential PV customers were directly affected by the saturation of the 10 circuits, and had earlier at the meeting with Mrs. Chong hinted that there were potentially many others who may also be affected, but who have not yet been notified.
A reliable source close to the utility told the Maui Weekly that there were 10 circuits at saturation (over 100 percent of capacity) and estimated another 29 circuits near capacity. These were said to be in the island's most heavily populated areas. A contributing factor in the case of the saturated circuits occurred when large installations, such as the Maui Arts & Cultural Center, shared the same circuit with many homes and other small users.
There was also another mass meeting for PV contractors in the afternoon.
Chong's meeting did not go well. After MECO officials apologized for "all the delays," Rymsha told her, "You were one of the people who got the 'bad news' letter."
Rymsha indicated that Chong would be on hold for many months to come. Though she was assured at the meeting that her situation would be given "number one priority at the head of the line," a follow-up email she received from Rymsha said, "There are currently 70 customers on your circuit in a similar situation as yourself. You are number 45 in the queue."
Chong would only be able to proceed if and when the upgrades were completed and she was willing to pay an as yet unspecified pro-rata share.
Though MECO initiated the meeting, the executives provided no explanations beyond what was stated in the letter. They had none of her files with them, nor did they appear to be familiar with her situation, although they set up the meeting and had a week to prepare for it.
"There was nothing about me; not one piece of paper," Chong said. "They were unprepared and unprofessional."
Also present at the morning meeting was Brad Albert, owner of Rising Sun Solar and a 10-year veteran in the trade. He was the contractor selected by the Chong to install her system. Though he had been invited to attend to support her position, he instead supported the company's position and his own priorities, which dealt primarily with how the circuit loads are calculated. When asked how she felt about his participation when the meeting was over, Chong said, "I guess he threw me under the bus. He used my meeting to make a case for his agenda."
Albert's agenda, simply stated, was to dispute the way the loads on the circuits are calculated and urge the company to compute them in a more accurate and realistic manner.
Though he was not present at any of the meetings, Maui County Energy Commissioner Doug McLeod, also contributed email comments related to the method of calculating load:
"The idea of comparing solar output to daytime minimum load makes sense," he wrote. "However, efforts by the utility so far have used oversimplified formulas that merely look at the maximum theoretical output of all the PV on the circuit.
"There are at least two concerns with this approach," McLeod wrote. "First, it is well known in the solar field that the output from each panel drops annually. The more solar on a circuit, the more capacity will naturally refresh. A rough approximation might be half-a-percent annually each year for 25 years.
"The second concern is roof orientation. When panels are on different roof angles, it is often impossible for all of the panels to give maximum output under the same sun conditions. The utility's initial approach does not account for these real-world variations and acts like every roof on the circuit is a flat roof on flat ground.
"In addition to these technical issues," McLeod's email continued, "the mayor remains concerned about whether the solar interconnection process is being administered in a fair way. We are waiting to hear more from the utility as to whether the decoupling charge will unfairly impact low income residents."
McLeod's comments came as he departed for a trip to Japan. He said he would expand more fully on the county's viewpoint when he returned.
The public evening meeting in the MECO auditorium was a replay of the morning meeting, to a larger audience.
This time, Rymsha stood in front of the auditorium and delivered a narrative to accompany a PowerPoint show. But the presentation had seemingly been designed for another purpose. He repeatedly gave technical explanations and then followed them with the comment, "Of course, that doesn't apply to any of you."
Though Rymsha stressed safety as the primary concern, he was vague about what the new marching orders actually meant, how these conclusions had been reached, provided no supporting evidence to justify the rule change, did not say definitely how long it would take, and reiterated that the pass-through charges for circuit upgrades were only ballpark figures.
Also present at the evening meeting was Jeff Ono the state Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs' (DCCA) consumer advocate, who was there as an observer. He said that his office did not have any investigative capacity and that it had received very few complaints about PV.
The following day, a variety of sources contacted by the Maui Weekly uniformly predicted a bonanza of interest in the circuits that still remain open.
"If you're a consumer, you'd better get it now [when there are no costs associated with interconnection to the gird on the circuits that are still open]," said one source. "Once the other circuits reach capacity, you will get hit with the upgrade costs--and they are going to be stiff."
Or as Rymsha said repeatedly, "It's only fair that the people who enjoy the benefits pay the costs." He said that only new PV connections would be assessed; those who had already hooked up would not incur additional costs.
As for Chong, a wife and mother with a fulltime job in which customer service is one of her primary responsibilities, she said she's had quite enough of Maui Electric. If and when she proceeds with plans for alternative energy, she's thinking of cutting the cord entirely.
"I just don't want to deal with MECO any more," she said.