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Solar energy integrated at Hawaiian military housing

December 9, 2009 - 11:27am

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If you ask most travelers, they would say Hawaii really is a very sunny chain of islands. Many Americans have enjoyed a relaxing day on the state’s warm beaches or have been awe-inspired by its fascinating volcanoes. But that wealth of sunshine powers more than just the tourism economy — it’s creating green jobs and clean, renewable solar energy.

Forest City Enterprises Inc., a major national real-estate developer with projects in Honolulu, has partnered with the Department of Energy and the Department of the Navy to solarize the Ohana Military Communities’ housing. Sandia National Laboratories, the National Renewable Energy Lab and New Mexico State University worked together on the project.

In 2007, solar installers put in solar thermal and photovoltaic solar panels on roofs throughout the military community – one of the largest real-estate developments in the country – which houses Navy and Marines families.

“For me personally, this project was more than just a job,” says Vipin Gupta, who led one of the DOE teams providing technical assistance. “My Navy brother was on his second tour of duty in Iraq at the time. This gave me a personal motive for helping these Navy families.”

Vipin, who works at Sandia in New Mexico, has gotten razzed a lot when he tells people about his three trips to Hawaii to work on the project. “People say, ‘That must have been rough,’” he says, emphasizing their sarcasm toward him. But because of all of the obstacles the project ran into along the way, it actually did turn out to be a difficult assignment.

“There were parts of this project when I thought the island must be cursed,” he jokes. “But in the end it worked out.”

During the now-completed first phase, called Solar America Showcase, the Energy Department provided solar technical assistance for the Ohana Military Communities’ first photovoltaic installation of 107 kilowatts on the roof of its community center, as well as for thousands of new, solar-powered homes that will be constructed, complete with solar water heaters and, in the near future, solar photovoltaic panels. Based on that installation, Ohana Military Communities have applied for an additional award with the intention of installing photovoltaics on 2,317 military housing units on Oahu, as well as constructing a 3.6-megawatt solar photovoltaic farm to support 2,206 homes on the Big Island.

Local workers are already retrofitting many homes with solar systems, and builders will install solar systems on other community centers, several warehouses and up to 30 acres of open-space land.

The residential solar energy systems will reduce owners’ utility bills, saving the community hard-earned money in the wake of the economic downturn. Additionally, without having to rely on conventional energy with fluctuating costs, the solar-powered community center will see its energy costs stabilize, saving taxpayers’ money as time goes by.

In Hawaii, where electricity rates are among the highest in the U.S., that’s no sliver of savings. It’s a boatload. In fact, solar energy may take off more quickly there than elsewhere because it’s nearly cost-competitive with conventional electricity already. And with steady technological breakthroughs, the cost of solar-powered systems continues to fall.

Vipin set out to honor his values and his brother’s commitment to the Navy through his work on this sustainable energy project, “and having solar displace petroleum-generated electricity was a meaningful way to do that,” he says.

This project works with the community, building on the recently-established Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative (HCEI) agreement between Hawaii and DOE. HCEI is a long-term partnership designed to transform Hawaii’s energy mix into one utilizing renewable energy and energy-efficient technologies. The Initiative’s goal is for Hawaii to utilize 70 percent clean energy by 2030.

With vast numbers of U.S. military families housed throughout the country and the world, the Ohana Military Communities project provides a shining opportunity — right from the sun — to build comfortable and energy-efficient homes across the globe.

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