Oahu company launching Ka‘u solar project


Construction on a series of solar panels in Ka‘u could begin as soon as 60 to 90 days, a solar company official said Tuesday.

Neighbors of the project, in the Hawaiian Ocean View Ranchos subdivision, are questioning why the company selected the lots it did and what impact the project could have on their neighborhood.

Pat Shudak, CEO of Solar Hub Utilities, said the company recently completed an interconnectivity study for Hawaiian Electric Light Co. Solar Hub Utilities is contracting with HELCO as part of the feed-in tariff program, which the Public Utilities Commission has already signed off on, setting a payment rate — 23.6 cents per kilowatt hour — for companies to sell renewable energy to HELCO, Hawaiian Electric Co. on Oahu and Maui Electric Co.

Shudak said he doesn’t know exactly when construction of the photovoltaic panels would begin. Construction should take up about 1 acre each on the 3-acre lots purchased through a subsidiary, Ohana Solar Power LLC, last year. Still, Shudak hopes to see work start within two to three months.

Ranchos residents have some questions about the project. One, Ward Lambert, identifies himself as a big solar power proponent.

“I’ve been living on it, using for 20 years,” Lambert said.

But he questioned plans to convert 18 3-acre lots in the development into 250 kilowatt hour photovoltaic farms. Oahu-based Solar Hub Utilities LLC filed last year for building permits to construct the photovoltaic panels.

Lambert said the proposal, which he learned about through a notice in a Ka‘u newsletter, raised a few red flags for him and his Ranchos neighbors.

For one, he wondered why the company wasn’t buying the lots at the bottom of the subdivision. Instead, a number of the lots are at higher elevations, where they have more vegetation, including ohia trees, and less direct sunlight.

“What are they going to do with these lots?” Lambert said. “Are they just going to doze them?”

He also questioned why a solar farm was allowed on the lots, which have an agricultural zoning and land use classification.

That, Planning Director Bobby Jean Leithead Todd said, is something county residents can thank state legislators for. The bulk of the land in the state is classified as agricultural or conservation, she said, with only a small percentage that has been reclassified as urban or residential. On Hawaii Island, 95 percent of the land falls under the ag or conservation designation.

“There’s a lot of ag land that is not necessarily the best land for growing crops,” Leithead Todd said. “That has to do with soil and water.”

The state even acknowledged that not all ag land is good for growing crops, she added. And with a state push toward renewable energy, it was an “important public policy” to open up ag land for creating energy.

At least one of the lots isn’t arid lava land, Lambert said. It’s next to a lot with a home on it and covered in mature ohia trees. Not only are Ranchos residents worried about the loss of the trees, but they also worry about how the solar farm would protect its solar panels.

Lambert speculated the company would surround the lots with chain link fences. Other residents agreed, and wondered why Solar Hub Utilities hadn’t reached out to the community about the project.

Shudak said he will have to protect the panels, but said he has offered to mask the fences with shrubbery or some other kind of foliage. The panels will only be about two to three feet above the ground.

He said he did try to contact a community association in the area, but couldn’t get through to anyone. Many of the lot owners the company tried to reach don’t even live in the subdivision and were difficult to contact, he said.

While he would have gladly purchased a cluster of lots all in open lava land — particularly flat lava land — Shudak said the company had to go with which lots were for sale.

“The lots we purchased were three times the size we needed,” he said. “The terrain is very coarse. Usually you come in and try to levelize it as much as possible.”

He said the company will use shade meters to determine which trees will need to be trimmed, cut down or moved.

Solar Hub has been working on the feed-in tariff project with HELCO, HECO and MECO for nearly two years. After reviewing the interconnectivity study, HELCO determined Solar Hub will need to build a miniature substation to handle the power the company generates in Ka‘u.

Shudak said they are still working out the design and engineering for that substation, and that will need to be finished before work on the photovoltaic construction.

“As much of a delay there has been, it’s probably been a benefit,” Shudak said. “The price on solar (equipment) has come down.”