Clean energy future racing toward reality

Maui Electric Co. and other Hawaii utilities once again were ranked among the top utilities in the country for solar power capacity.

MECO parent Hawaiian Electric Co. again was named one of the nation’s Top 10 electric utilities for the amount of solar power added to its system per customer in the the 2010 Solar Electric Power Association Utility Solar Rankings. MECO was ranked in fifth place for total solar watts per customer.

The amount of grid-connected solar is growing fast, and even a little faster than vendors had promised, if the experience of businessmen Thomas Kafsack and Josh Stone is any indication.

Both installed solar generators since the last round of SEPA solar rankings.

Kafsack, operator of Surfing Goat Dairy, just broke ground for phase two of his 43 kilowatt project, but he is pleased with phase one, which covers half his barn roof and was switched on a couple of weeks ago.

The project, designed and built by Haleakala Solar, cost more than $300,000, but after two tries Kafsack got a Renewable Energy for America grant from the Department of Agriculture to cover 20 percent of the cost.

Without the grant, he said Friday, the investment would not have made a sufficient return, but with it he will recover his costs “in under 10 years.”

At present, his dairy consumes about 38 kW, to run milking machines, refrigerators, separators, pasteurizers and other equipment.

In some cases, solar generators can feed electricity back to MECO, but that is not Kafsack’s goal. He expects his electricity use to grow year by year – he is expecting a new pasteurizer from Belgium next month that will be four times bigger than the one he has now – and all he wants to do is be self-sufficient. “We just want to get the bill down to zero,” he says.

It has been over $16,000 a year.

Stone owns the 1920s-era building housing Casanova Italian Restaurant and Deli in Makawao.

With some hesitation, he purchased a $335,000, 128 kW system from Sunetric, which he expects will save him around $14,000 a year.

Stone said he was worried about government bureaucracy, but so far his experience “has been incredible.” He, too, got a federal subsidy.

Like Kafsack, his array is outperforming specifications. And it had many benefits aside from renewable electricity.

The old roof was renovated to accommodate the panels, and now he said his tenant “is dry.”

The probable reason that both systems are producing more electricity than their ratings has to do with Maui’s clouds.

In 1989, researchers from the University of California at Davis installed one of Maui’s first sizable grid-connected solar arrays just above the Maui Research & Technology Park. The project, called PVUSA, was experimental, and was therefore more thoroughly instrumented that an ordinary solar generating station.

The experimenters were surprised, when they switched it on, to find that it was producing a lot more electricity than they had designed it to do. Small by the standards of newer, commercial installations, it is still generating 20 kW (saving 52 barrels of oil a year, according to MECO).

Researchers soon concluded that the reason it put out extra power was the late afternoon clouds that usually spread south and west from the upper levels of Haleakala.

Solar engineers sometimes measure insolation in “suns,” and usually 1.0 suns is as good as it gets. Often, it will be less, as clouds interfere.

But on the leeward slope of Haleakala, the sun strikes the flank of the volcano, reflects to the underside of the afternoon clouds and then back down to the PVUSA panels, which are already getting a direct sun, since the clouds seldom extend as far as Piilani Highway. Thus, the array often enjoys 1.3 suns of light in the afternoon.

Surfing Goat is not very far from PVUSA and gets the same effect. Stone speculates that he may be enjoying something similar in Makawao, although his vendors promised him only the rated panel output.

In the SEPA Utility Solar Rankings, HECO placed third among investor-owned utilities for the amount of solar power added to its system per customer, up from eighth in 2009. Silicon Valley Power in Santa Clara, Calif., was first.

In cumulative or total solar watts per customer, Kauai Island Utility Co-op ranked second (as it did in 2009, following Southern California Edison).

Hawaii Electric Light Co. on the Big Island was fourth and MECO was just a hair behind in fifth place. HECO was ninth.

“This recognition of Hawaii’s continued progress in adding solar power to our grids is really an honor shared with Hawaii’s solar industry,” said Robbie Alm, Hawaiian Electric executive vice president. “Companies working to install utility-scale solar farms and customer-sited solar arrays as well as their customers who are moving Hawaii toward a clean energy future – all these partners really deserve the credit.”

Overall, the SEPA Utility Solar Rankings report found that additions of new solar power by utilities in 2010 doubled the amounts installed in 2009.

Silicon Valley had 39.9 watts per customer of solar power installed last year, and HECO had 33.2.

MECO had 22.8. That ranked it 15th among all utilities nationwide, including cooperatives and municipally owned producers.

This was the fourth annual SEPA survey. The results are available at

Clean energy future racing toward reality – | News, Sports, Jobs, Visitor’s Information – The Maui News

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