Hundreds on Kauai may have faulty solar parts

KALAHEO — Two years into operation, 70-year-old Val Tsuchiya’s photovoltaic system started to falter.

His microinverter, a part of the solar panel that converts the sun’s energy into electricity, needed replacing.

Since installing his system through Islandwide Solar, a company now out of business, the Kalaheo resident said he needs to replace a fifth microinverter.

“A lot of these old timers might not know their system is working,” Tsuchiya said. “With my 10-panel system, I think I have a 50 percent failure rate in five years.”

The problem, Tsuchiya said, is the parts replaced for free by Islandwide Solar now include labor costs.

“I’m gonna wait for two or three of the microinverters to fail and have (installers) come out on one visit and pull them off … because I’m paying the guy by the hour,” he said.

The microinverters, developed by Enphase, an energy technology company headquartered in Petaluma, California, are covered by a warranty, according to Enphase representatives.

Labor of the installation, however, comes out of the owner’s pocket.

On Kauai, Islandwide Solar installed Enphase systems or parts in the homes of 329 customers, according to Enphase records. Statewide, the number of Islandwide Solar customers is about 1,100.

“I wasn’t dissatisfied with Islandwide Solar, but I’m disappointed with Enphase because Enphase didn’t pick up the warranty or didn’t find someone else on the island who will honor the warranty,” Tsuchiya said. “That’s what the core of the issue is. They have failed in that respect. Now they may be able to do it legally, but I think they have failed in the moral and ethical responsibility.”

In July, Islandwide Solar liquidated more than $800,000 in assets. The company had operations on Kauai, Big Island and Oahu.

Representatives with Islandwide Solar did not respond to requests for comment.

Goran Rad, a solar consultant with Haleakala Solar on Kauai, received calls from over 20 former Islandwide Solar customers because the company went out of business.

From his company’s records, Rad said the wrong technology was installed in 2011 photovoltaic systems.

“These systems from about five years ago are starting to fall like dominoes,” he said. “I don’t know if every case is like this, but we found that the wrong inverter was installed for the panels the customer got.”

Tsuchiya is hesitant on replacing his next microinverter. He said he’d rather wait until multiple parts fail, so he doesn’t pay for additional labor.

“I think (Haleakala Solar) said they can come up and replace the microinverter. That’s nice, but you’re going to have to pay,” he said. “Off the cuff, I said, ‘Will a repair job like that cost me $300 to $500?’ The guy looks at me and says, ‘Yeah, that’s about it.’”

Rad said it’s difficult to determine a quote for a customer’s faulty system.

“It depends on the customer’s situation and how their system is set up,” he said. “There are so many designs for solar out there. In order to give a proper assessment, we would really need to see the system physically.”

The first step, he said, is to make an assessment with the existing equipment that was installed.

“We need to make sure if the inverter is the problem or the circuitry or maybe a wire was loose,” he said.

About 3,400, or 12 percent of Kauai Island Utility Cooperative’s residential customers, have solar installations, according to KIUC.

In the state, Kauai experienced the largest increase in clean energy use in 2015 by increasing its renewable energy portfolio standard from 17.5 percent in 2014 to 27.3 percent last year, according to the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism’s Hawaii State Energy Office’s 2016 Energy Resources Coordinator’s Annual Report.

Tsuchiya advises anyone interested in solar technology to make sure there’s a difference between the equipment supplier and the retailer.

“What happens if the installer leaves the island?” he said. “You need to be with somebody reliable.”

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