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Hawaii aims for microthermal solar utopia

Start-up concentrates solar on Oahu to provide power for native Hawaiians including residences, retail, offices, and light industry.

It's not every solar project that gets its own ground-blessing ceremony.

But the Kalaeloa Solar One project will pay back native Hawaiians with both energy and rent through a partnership with Keahole Solar Power, Hawaiian start-up Sopogy, and the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands (DHHL).

Which is why there was a ground-blessing ceremony held for the project yesterday in Kalealoa, Oahu, west of Honolulu.

Sopogy is supplying its micro-concentrated solar panels (MicroCSP) for the 5-megawatt thermal solar plant that will tie-in to a new plan for the Kalealoa community near Honolulu.

Sopogy's panels are actually small solar troughs with reflective coating that direct sunlight onto a pipe running through it carrying oil. That hot oil is then run through an Organic Rankine cycle: the oil is directed to a boiler where it's converted into steam then directed to power a turbine to generate electricity, after which it's re-condensed and sent back through the pipes for reuse.

Sopogy's proprietary system also has built-in storage that enables it to retain electricity for later use, allowing the thermal solar plant to still supply electricity for a portion of time at night or on cloudy days.

Aerial view of Kalealoa State of Hawaii

While the 5-megawatt project may seem small compared to the 392-megawatt or 1,000-megawatt thermal solar projects reported about in recent weeks, this is Hawaii's largest concentrated solar project to date. The MicroCSP Sopogy system that has been operating in Kona, Hawaii, since 2009 is 2-megawatts.

The project will contribute, of course, to Hawaii's now well-known goal to get 70 percent of its energy from renewable resources by 2030.

But in addition to supplying enough electricity, the solar project also seems to be a test case for the DHHL, the state agency trust that manages and develops the protected lands for native Hawaiians and has leased out the land for the solar project. Kalaeloa, where the solar plant will be located, consists of 3,700 acres of land. It encompasses the former Barbers Point Naval Air Station lands, which were recently handed over to the state, and remain largely undeveloped.

The solar plant is tied to the Kalaeloa Master Plan development project consisting of 6,350 residential units, as well as commercial, retail, and office space estimated to create 7,000 permanent jobs as part of a partnership with the DHHL.

In addition to supplying solar energy, the Kalaeloa Solar One project will also pay rent to the DHHL for the space its solar arrays occupy. That income will be used to build residences and fund programs for native Hawaiians.