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Community-based solar projects offer energy independence to Molokaʻi renters

FILE - A workman installs a solar panel on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2022. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Rick Bowmer/AP
FILE - Photovoltaic panels on a home.

Local homeowners are hungrier than ever for solar. Hawaiʻi has more rooftop solar per capita than any other U.S. state.

Hawaiian Electric reported in early 2022 that a third of their customers living in single-family homes had solar on their roofs. On top of that, HECO wants to add 50,000 rooftop solar systems on homes and businesses this decade to help meet the state's clean energy goals.

Like buying an electric vehicle, putting up solar panels signals that you’re making an individual effort to fight climate change. But this popular sunny-side solution leaves renters out of the clean energy equation.

Enter community-based solar, said Ali Andrews, CEO of Shake Energy Collaborative. Her company develops community-designed renewable energy projects to serve folks without access to conventional rooftop solar.

"Maybe they rent rather than own their own home. Maybe they own their own home, but it's shaded, or they can't access the financing for the pretty significant cost of putting rooftop solar,” Andrews said. “Community solar was really designed for those customers.”

So how does it work? Andrews said the idea is to build an off-site facility connected to the grid with anywhere from a couple dozen to several thousand households' worth of solar panels.

“And then let those dozen hundred or thousand homes kind of virtually sign up to receive the credit for the electricity,” Andrews said.

Each household sees a “small slice” of that solar energy credited on their power bill. Andrews said that customers can see the same sort of cost-savings from community solar as rooftop solar.

Those savings could make all the difference for folks on Molokaʻi, where energy costsare the second highest in the state, outranked only by Lānaʻi.

Energy costs climbed even higher last year when oil prices spiked, leaving diesel-dependent Molokaʻi caught in the crosshairs. For Hoʻāhu Energy Cooperative Vice President Lori Buchanan, that instability underscored the need for alternative power sources like solar.

The future site of the Pālā‘au Solar community solar project next to Hawaiian Electric's Pālā‘au Baseyard on Molokaʻi.
Hoʻāhu Energy Cooperative
The future site of the Pālā‘au Solar community solar project next to Hawaiian Electric's Pālā‘au Baseyard on Molokaʻi.

“It really is about energy justice for those of us that live on Molokaʻi,” Buchanan said. “The need to have equity. And the ability to have affordable and renewable energy across the landscape.”

Shake Energy Collaborative is working with the Ho‘āhu Energy Cooperative to bring two community solar projects to Molokaʻi. Together, they could meet over 20% of the island’s energy needs by 2025.

“Shared solar is so important for the people of Molokaʻi like myself, who really desire to do the right thing to have renewable energy, but simply cannot afford the cost of what it would take to have our own individual solar panels,” Buchanan said.

Both projects will not only be community-owned, but also community-designed.

Andrews said that other than the requirements set by HECO in the request for proposals, Shake Energy Collaborative and the Ho‘āhu Energy Cooperative came in with no preconceived notion about what these projects would look like. They’ve held nearly 40 community meetings over the last three years to consult with residents on different aspects of the project.

“We started in 2020 with the earliest question of where should this project be?” Andrews said. “We picked a site through kind of zooming over Google Maps together in a Zoom room, looking at a map.”

Buchanan said residents had questions — hours and hours worth of them. “I mean, basically everything was a concern,” Buchanan said.

Many of the residents' questions had to do with online misinformation about solar projects.

“Providing the correct information really takes time, but it really is worth it in the long run for people to really clearly understand," Buchanan said.

With the state’s ambitious green energy goals, the uncertainty of oil prices, and the ever-growing threats of climate change, there is a lot of pressure to bring solar energy projects online as fast as possible. But community pushback has the power to stop a project dead in its tracks. Andrews said developers need to treat residents’ concerns as gospel if projects are going to be successful long-term.

“True energy sovereignty is less about independence and more about connectedness,” said Andrews. “If the project is locally-owned – the people who own the project are the people that are served by the project – then that connectedness makes us all the more resilient to any outside pressures.”

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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