The number of rooftop solar permits Honolulu issued in October fell by 58 percent from the prior year.
Still, the solar industry is hopeful sales will rebound this month and next after Hawaiian Electric Co. said earlier this month it is working fast to get more solar systems approved.
The City and County of Honolulu issued 518 rooftop solar building permits last month compared with 1,246 in October 2013. Permits issued since the beginning of the year saw a drop of 51 percent with 5,394 issued through October 2014 compared with 11,123 in the same period last year, said Marco Mangelsdorf, president of Hilo-based ProVision Solar.
In September 2013 HECO changed its rules regarding rooftop solar systems and began requiring customers and contractors to be approved by the utility before installing photovoltaic systems. The utility said this was to address potential safety and reliability concerns in areas where rooftop solar had grown rapidly.
Without the HECO approval, homeowners could not move forward with solar installations. The September 2013 rule change was a major setback for Hawaii’s solar industry.
Last month HECO took a step toward speeding up solar approvals. In an Oct. 31 letter to the Public Utilities Commission, the utility said it had 4,807 solar customers waiting for approval. The utility promised to approve all but a few hundred of those by April and the rest by December 2015.
"We’re going as fast as we can," said Peter Rosegg, HECO spokesman.
"We are not trying to stop solar. … We are trying to get rid of that backlog as quickly as possible, but we still have a responsibility to deliver safe and reliable service."
HECO’s letter has given people hope again, said Colin Yost, principal at RevoluSun, a local solar company.
"We’ve got a lot of work to do," Yost said. "It’s definitely going to result in more jobs in the industry and more customers getting solar faster than they thought they would."
Yost was positive as he looked to the upcoming month.
"I think we will have one of the strongest December sales months ever," he said.
HECO expects to see a lot of permits in December and will try to move them as fast as they can, Rosegg said.
ProVision’s Mangelsdorf said he is not as optimistic about a rebound in solar installations.
"I think the grid penetration issues continue," he said. "If you have got that degree of uncertainty, that is not good when trying to move your product."
The high level of consumer adoption is also a factor in the low numbers, Mangelsdorf said.
"The low-hanging fruit has been picked over the last couple of years," he said. "There is still a lot of fruit to be picked, but we are already the state with the highest per capita per household percentage of PV in the entire country."
Hawaii had more solar per capita than any other state in the country in 2013, according to a recent report by the Interstate Renewable Energy Council.