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    Photovoltaic technology is the fastest-growing segment of the renewable-energy spectrum in Hawaii. The PV panels generate power by using solar cells to convert energy from the sun into electricity. Above, Hoku Corp.'s PV system at Kona International Airport at Keahole.

The longest-running global gathering of solar energy scientists and engineers has chosen one of the nation’s sunniest states for its annual conference.

The IEEE photovoltaic Specialists Conference kicks off Sunday at the Hawai’i Convention Center, bringing more than 18,000 members and speakers under one roof to discuss the latest advances and research in solar energy generation.

Among the more than 900 presentations scheduled for the event is a panel discussion on the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative and barriers facing the photovoltaic industry here.

"It should be interesting. There will be everything from the physics of PV and new materials to policy developments with what is going in Hawaii," said Mark Duda, head of the Hawaii Solar Energy Association.

The weeklong event will include a "Public Day" on Tuesday during which the community will be granted free admission from 1:30 to 5:30 p.m. The annual High School Solar Science Fair demonstration and competition also is scheduled that day.

The event is expected to generate $8.5 million in visitor spending and fill 14,000 hotel rooms, according to the convention center.

Duda said the event will provide an opportunity to talk about the growing pains Hawaii faces as it tries to integrate electricity generated by many small renewable sources into a grid that is dominated by large, centralized utilities.

Photovoltaic technology is the fastest-growing segment of the renewable-energy spectrum in Hawaii. Photovoltaic panels generate power by using solar cells to convert energy from the sun into electricity.

The volume of electricity generated by "net-metered" systems – or those connected to the grid – soared from just under 1,000 kilowatts in 2007 to 4,000 kilowatts in 2008, a 300 percent increase according to data compiled by the Hawaii Solar Energy Association. The rate of growth slowed to about 75 percent in 2009 due to the economic slowdown, but the rate is accelerating again this year as pent-up demand for PV systems is satisfied, Duda said.

One positive thing the local PV industry can look forward to is a "feed-in tariff" program to be implemented in the second half of this year that will make it easier for PV systems with capacities above 100 kilowatts to tie into the electrical grid, Duda said.

"It will allow landowners to turn empty rooftops into moneymaking ventures," he said.

However, regulations still prevent owners of the large generating systems to take advantage of a system known as "net-metering," a billing arrangement that allows owners of PV systems to get credit from their utility for the full retail value of electricity they generate in excess of what they consume.

"The better solution would be to raise the 100 KW cap on systems allowed under the net-metering program," Duda said.

Another setback the local PV industry is trying to overcome is the state Legislature’s decision last session to kill a bill that would have authorized the state to issue bonds that would finance loans to cover the upfront costs of PV installation. Under the program, homeowners would get loans that would be repaid through assessments on the county property tax bills.

The Senate dropped its version of the bill after mortgage lenders expressed concern about the measure. The debt would be senior to existing mortgage debt, so if the homeowner defaulted or went into foreclosure, it would be repaid before the mortgage lender got any money.

Duda said his group supported the bill and that it would be looking to come up with a compromise solution next session.


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