Hurdles hurt solar loans, expert says
Jeff Mikulina, executive director of Blue Planet Foundation, is defending the state’s failed renewable-energy loan program that is intended to help residents who have trouble owning renewable energy.
Hawaii lawmakers created the Green Energy Market Securitization, or GEMS program, in 2013 to make rooftop solar systems more affordable. GEMS raised roughly $150 million through a bond sale and was to have lent that money by the end of November.
To date it has lent roughly 2 percent of the funds, while $33 million in interest on the bonds is being repaid by Hawaii ratepayers via a $1.50 “Green Infrastructure Fee” on every monthly electrical bill.
Mikulina, a member of the Hawaii Green Infrastructure Authority board, said that the program has $109 million worth of projects in the pipeline and expects to lend out $60 million by mid-2017.
“It (GEMS) was an excellent idea; it was the first of its kind,” Mikulina said Thursday at the 13th Hawaii Energy Policy Forum.
Mikulina said the program is undergoing a “course correction,” reinforcing that programs like GEMS are necessary to achieve 100 percent renewable energy.
“If we think of Hawaii as a test bed, there will be learning lessons,” Mikulina said. “And that is what the Green Infrastructure Authority is committed to do.”
So far the program has loaned out approximately $3.5 million, according to Mikulina, noting 90 percent fill the “underserved” group the state identified in making the program.
Mikulina defended why the program was “so far in and still has so little to show for the program.”
A major issue for the program was that the loans developed in late 2015 were based on 2012-2013 data before a popular solar incentive program called net energy metering (which credited customers the full retail rate for the excess energy their systems sent into the grid) was canceled by state regulators.
“That was when NEM was off the charts, the market was booming and on the ground it look like there was a real opportunity here, particularly for those with low credit scores,” Mikulina said.
Other challenges for the program cited by Mikulina included the program picking deployment partners that “weren’t ideal,” the program originally only accepting physical applications, and the program competing against local lenders.
“We got in the way of ourselves,” he said.
Another problem Mikulina said GEMS faced was that a lot of the properties in the state are held in trust — when a home is overseen by a third party. Mikulina said Wisconsin-based WECC, the nonprofit tasked with approving the applications, was unfamiliar with that type of ownership.
“Fifty percent were rejected on the basis the property is owned by a trust,” he said.
Mikulina said the program began an online application process and started a new commercial loan product. The original products were for low-income residents to obtain solar and nonprofits looking to obtain solar. The program has experienced an increase in interest after launching the commercial loan product in October, according to Mikulina.
Mikulina said, depending on PUC approval, the program is looking to fund residential energy efficiency projects as well as storage projects. Another focus Mikulina listed is getting approval from the state Public Utilities Commission to set up a way for those participating in the program to pay off the GEMS loan through their electrical bill.
“It makes it more convenient, and it makes it more likely that they will pay it off,” Mikulina said.