Maui-based Hawaii Pacific Solar, or HPS, has negotiated a number of changes and challenges to the photovoltaic and storage installation industry over the last 12 to 18 months.
Hawaii Pacific Solar, which primarily does commercial projects across the Islands, does frequent Tesla Powerwall battery installations for both commercial and residential projects. But lead times for the batteries have grown significantly over the pandemic, HPS President Bob Johnston told Pacific Business News recently.
It’s not just batteries. Prices and wait times for steel for HPS’ parking canopy projects have “gone crazy,” Johnston said, over the past 12 months, with lead times for fabrication and delivery going from 8-10 weeks to over 20 weeks.
Roughly 80% of HPS’s contracts are government contracts in some form. It has about 20 team members right now but sub-contracts out for projects as well. Its solar projects are typically up to four megawatts in size, with most of them in the 100 to 400 kilowatt range.
HPS recently signed a contract to add parking canopy PV to Kapolei High School, he said.
How would you compare this moment in time to back when you started in 2008?
We are one of the survivors, right? We are a locally owned company, and we’re proud of the fact we’ve grown our business — certainly there have been ups and downs. When we first started this, it was basically to act as the developer of these two large solar farms. Of course, that took a longer than we anticipated, so we started getting into the actual installation, development and integration of general distributed energy solar projects. And we’ve had a lot of success on that front.
Back in the day when there was [net energy metering], there was a lot of activity and it was relatively easy to find projects because of that program. The programs have changed, the circuits have filled up, [and] it’s a lot more complicated now to do the engineering and design for facilities because of the different programs that have limitations on power production, export and things of that nature.
But on the other hand, I think HECO has learned a lot over the last 10 years … there’s a different generation of people, engineers, management running the company that are fully embracing renewable energy and are trying to figure out ways to achieve the goals set by public policy.
What is top of mind for you?
We’ve had a lot of our larger projects delayed for one reason or another. I think part of it is a lack of urgency. A lot of our business is tax-driven, so with a lot of the work going on in Congress regarding renewable energy and climate change and all that, I think a lot of the larger projects are waiting around to see the result of this new legislation that hopefully will happen at some point in the very new future, and what kind of incentives there will be to encourage the addition of renewables onto the grid of electric infrastructure.
We’ve seen really low fuel prices in general — fossil fuel prices, oil prices — so utility rates, specifically in Hawaii, have been lower over the last couple of years. When you compare that to the cost of installing solar, and specifically solar with canopies, because parking canopies are more expensive, there hasn’t been that huge savings that people have grown to expect.
But now, we know that fuel prices have almost doubled in the last six months, but they haven’t worked their way into the HECO pricing structure yet; they buy contracts going forward six, 12 months in advance, so their prices are locked in. But we should start seeing the fuel surcharge start going up, and that’ll make more incentive and create more of a sense of urgency for a lot of these larger projects to move forward.
How much do parking canopy installations make up of your business?
It is a large chunk. One of the reasons, is because the city and county of Honolulu, they’ve adopted a more recent building code, and … (it) has required some structural assessment of buildings before you can put on solar. The structural requirements are a lot more stringent than they were on the previous building codes. Anything built more than 20 years just don’t meet that code.
So we’ve seen a lot of rooftops … become more problematic. We’re seeing a lot more [canopy projects] … it’s more expensive, but it’s a lot easier to get parking structure-type situations approved.
How is the business of installing EV chargers doing?
There’s not a lot of it going on, but as you can imagine with a hard push for adding electric vehicles to the economy, we know that EV charging infrastructure is critical to the success of that program.
And if we’re going to get to a net zero by (2045), transportation is a big part of that. There’s going to be a huge pivot to electric vehicles, so consequently there’s going to be a huge need for electric vehicle infrastructure well beyond just in your home. So … we’ve just signed a contract with Electrify America and will be doing some of their Level 3 charging stations throughout Oahu in the coming months.
And we know Tesla is coming out with an RFP for their Supercharging stations, and we hope to be actively involved and bid into that. But we see EV charging as a really, really important part of our business; not so much today … but moving forward, as more and more electric vehicles hit the road.
What other issues would you speak to?
There’s always challenges — the ever-changing landscape as far as interconnection agreements that are available, how the grid gets penetrated, as we’re experiencing on Oahu, changes in the permitting process. You just have to have a certain flexibility, and I think the companies that have survived over the last number of years have been able to adjust accordingly, no matter what problems we’ve experienced.
In the last year, two years, we’ve had unprecedented changes in not only our business and the economy in general of how we operate.