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Utility-scale solar hits supply chain snags, but Inflation Reduction Act offers hope

Clearway Energy Group's Mililani I Solar project, Oʻahu's first utility-scale solar and storage plant
Savannah Harriman-Pote
Clearway Energy Group's Mililani I Solar project, Oʻahu's first utility-scale solar and storage plant

Hawaiʻi’s only coal-fired power plant is set to end operations by Sept. 1 after three decades of use. There are concerns about delayed large renewable energy projects, which leave residents on the hook for higher energy costs.

Gov. David Ige joined state officials and solar industry professionals at a ceremony Thursday for the new Mililani I Solar, a 131-acre solar and storage plant in Kunia on O‘ahu.

The project went live in July after nearly three years of development by the solar company Clearway Energy Group. The mood was upbeat, but folks weren’t shy about just how tough-going the project has been.

Ralph Valentino has been the site manager for this Clearway project for the last year and a half.

There were plenty of times when he wasn't sure they would be able to bring this project online. "Only about nine days out of 10," Valentino says.

Valentino's biggest headache was delayed shipments of solar components to Hawaiʻi. "We still are struggling over on the other project to get the last couple pieces here," he says.

Mililani I Solar
Savannah Harriman-Pote
Clearway Energy Group's Mililani I Solar project

Clearway has a second utility-scale solar and storage project in the works — Waiawa Solar Power. But unlike Mililani, Waiawa’s not going to hit its deadline for commercial operations.

In fact, of the nine utility-scale projects on O’ahu that have power purchase agreements with Hawaiian Electric, only two are currently on track with their timelines.

In HECO’s July progress report before the Public Utilities Commission, Clearway said it was addressing a possible seven to eight-week delay for its Waiawa project while it waited for a shipment from its battery supplier that had been impacted by the summer’s lockdowns in Shanghai.

That’s just the latest in a series of supply chain distributions that have plagued the solar industry over the last year.

"Getting materials here in time, I don't want to say nationwide but is sort of a worldwide squeeze. Everything seems to come from Asia," Valentino says. "America needs to gear back up into manufacturing their own. If we can manufacture our own, we're in a much better position to keep rolling."

Rocky Mould, the executive director of the Hawaii Solar Energy Association, says that while much of the manufacturing and assembly of solar hardware takes place in Asia, that’s changing.

"There are significant investments happening in the United States, in Mexico, and in Canada as well," Mould says. "And those investments are not just in the assembling of the solar panels themselves, but also in the mining and the sourcing of the materials."

This summer, several solar developers including Clearway committed to spending $6 billion on U.S.-made solar panels in order to stoke a domestic supply chain in the coming decade.

And the Inflation Reduction Act, signed into law by President Biden last week, may boost domestic solar manufacturing even more.

"The Inflation Reduction Act is only going to accelerate those changes that are occurring," Mould says. "So that's huge. That's kind of like an industrial policy for solar and renewable energy in the U.S. that we haven't had prior to this."

Mould is confident that domestic solar manufacturing will have its day.

For folks on O‘ahu, who are losing one of their largest sources of energy in less than two weeks when the AES Hawaii coal plant goes offline, that day can’t come soon enough.

A longer version of this story also aired on The Conversation on Aug. 18, 2022.

Oʻahu's first utility-scale solar and storage plant opens as its last coal plant closes
Savannah Harriman-Pote for The Conversation on Aug. 18, 2022

Savannah Harriman-Pote is the energy and climate change reporter. She is also the lead producer of HPR's This Is Our Hawaiʻi podcast. Contact her at sharrimanpote@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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