Karin Stanton | Hawaii 24/7 Contributing Editor
Sopogy president Darren Kimura and Gov. Linda Lingle flipped the switch to usher in a new era of solar power technology Thursday morning at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii.
Sopogy – which takes two letters each from the words solar, power and technology – is the world’s first MicroCSP solar thermal plant and is now supplying 500 kilowatts to HELCO’s grid. The Big Island already gets more than 30 percent of its energy from clean renewable sources such as wind, solar and geothermal projects.
The facility will reduce the need to import more than 2,000 barrels of oil annually and reduce carbon emissions by an estimated 6,000 tons over 30 years.
Kimura, a Waiakea High School graduate, has been working on the clean energy concept since 2002, after rejecting flat plate solar and photovoltaic methods as inefficient.
Eventually, Kimura and his team settled on the Sopogy prototype, and set about building the 3.8-acre project at NELHA.
He said he is proud that the new technology was developed in Hawaii and built in Hawaii with local contractors.
“It’s obvious why we picked Kona,” he said, waving at the clear blue skies and mid-morning sun. “This is not technology people here in Hawaii have seen before. MicroCSP is an achievement in rugged, modular and cost effective solar thermal technology.”
The 2-megawatt thermal energy plant utilizes 1,000 proprietary MicroCSP solar panels. Through the use of mirrors and optics and an integrated sun tracker, these panels achieve higher efficiencies than conventional solar panels.
The system also uses a unique thermal energy storage buffer that allows energy to be produced during cloudy periods and to shift energy produced from the day to evening periods.
Essentially, the sun’s heat is captured by the mirrors and deflected toward liquid-filled pipes, which produce the steam that turns the turbine.
Kimura said it is not unlike a traditional power plant.
“What we’re effectively doing is producing energy much the same way but with no fossil fuels,” he said. “Because we’re dealing with steam and heat, we’re able to put that into a storage container and thereby overcome things like clouds or nighttime periods.”
The project cost slightly less than $20 million and is officially named “Holaniku at Keahole Point,” derived from the Hawaiian term for a location that has everything required for self-sufficiency.
HELCO president Jay Ignacio said Sopogy will help the electric company achieve its core mission of providing reliable service at an affordable cost. Additionally, while other alternative energy supplies are tied to oil costs, Sopogy is decoupled from those fluctuations.
“That’s one very big plus for this project,” he said. “Sopogy has a steady output with this technology. From the utility’s perspective, this technology is very attractive.”
While the amount of power Sopogy can deliver in the near future is not huge, Ignacio said the benefits will be long-lasting.
“It’s the principle behind the technology and what we can learn from this that is substantial,” he said. “We need to reduce fossil fuels and do it right. This is reliable, economic and it’s not harmful to the environment.”
During the blessing ceremony, Sen. Mike Gabbard and Rep. Denny Coffman presented Kimura with congratulatory proclamations and Kahu Kahekili – Larry Ursua and Halau Kupaaina performed chants and hulas.
Sopogy and development partner Keahole Solar Power have a goal to bring 30 megawatts of MicroCSP power to the state by 2015, in an effort to boost the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative.
The initiative aims to reduce the state’s imported energy to 30 percent within 20 years. Currently, the state spends $5-$7 billion each year to import foreign oil.
Lingle said the achieving that goal will need commitment from the government, entrepreneurs like Kimura, the utilities and consumers.
She said was especially pleased Sopogy is staying true to its Hawaii roots by using local labor and creating jobs, which means the money stays in the state.
Sopogy now has eight solar thermal energy facilities operating around the world. Sopogy’s MicroCSP technologies are being used in such diverse applications including process heat, solar air conditioning, roof top deployment and now power generation.
Founded in 2002, Sopogy specializes in MicroCSP solar technologies that bring the economics of large solar energy systems to the industrial, commercial and utility sectors in a smaller, robust and more cost effective package. Sopogy’s goal is to create solar solutions that improve the quality of life and simplify the solar power business.
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