Solar-Panel “Clustering” Coming to Scores of Army Homes on Hawaii

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Hawaii is known for many things, like its beautiful beaches, tropical forests, clear blue waters, and plentiful sunshine throughout the year. It is one of the most visited places on earth, with nearly 9.2 million people visiting the Aloha State just in 2022 alone. Hawaii is also a popular destination for retired military personnel to live in. It is home to 12 military bases, nearly 40,000 active duty members, around 112,000 veterans, and 9,400 national guardsmen and reservists.

Solar power clustering
Island of Palms, Hawaii. Photo courtesy of Lendlease Communities.

While many people flock to the tropical paradise to live, there are some other things to consider as well. Hawaii has high electricity rates, with an average of 44 cents per kilowatt-hour compared to the national average rate of 15.34 cents/kWh. The good news is that this makes installing solar a very economical solution, especially with the amount of sun the islands enjoy year-round.

One of the real estate companies in the state, Lendlease Communities, operates nearly 8,000 homes on Oahu, providing housing for military families through a partnership with the U.S. Army. Island Palm Communities, which is made up of 12 communities and 42 neighborhoods, is one of Lendlease’s nicest communities.

Recently, Lendlease along with the U.S. Army entered into a contract with Holu Hou Energy to install photovoltaic and battery systems in four- to six-home clusters on the Big Island. The installation of solar panel clusters is expected to begin in July at 200 homes in the Army’s Aliamanu Military Reservation in Honolulu and be completed by the end of the year, with thousands more planned beyond that.

Solar power clustering is when many residential unit PV and energy storage systems are linked together in an energy network or “cluster.” When any networked unit’s system has excess solar generation that would otherwise be lost, it is immediately shared in real-time with other linked units that have loads above their solar generation. The advantage is that by utilizing optimum PV and energy storage systems, 75% to 80% or more of the entire energy demands of the residents may be met without any electricity being exported to the utility grid.

“The panel-battery system within any single cluster is optimally sized so that most of the power generated is used within that group of homes. Each cluster will use about 75% to 80% of the power generated by its system. Homes remain connected to the grid for shortfalls in the solar supply,” said Brad Hansen, chief executive officer for Holu Hou.

Solar power clustering
Solar-power hardware was installed in 2022 in this home at the Army’s Aliamanu Military Reservation in Honolulu as part of a solar-clustering pilot project that will now expand to hundreds of homes. Image courtesy of Holu Hou.

Six homes are normally to be wired up in a Holu Hou Energy Share network, and each home will have about 10 kW of PV and 25 kWh of energy storage. Homes will be grouped mostly according to proximity. Electric lines linking the cluster will need to be buried — therefore, trenching will be necessary. Although, groups will be designed to minimize trenching across asphalt.

“Lendlease Communities is proud to partner with Holu Hou Energy on this innovative renewable energy project, which will not only improve the quality of life for military families at Island Palm Communities but also contribute to a more resilient and stable electric grid in Oahu,” said Matt Lynn, SVP of energy and utilities at Lendlease. “This partnership further solidifies our commitment to developing sustainable communities using cutting-edge technology.”

Lendlease and Holu Hou Energy started a pilot project in May 2022. Since then, the pilot has been running throughout six residential units with excellent results. The solar cluster solves the difficulties with vacancy and resident load unpredictability while demonstrating the higher value offered by a clustered approach compared to a stand-alone system by sharing around a third of the total power generated in a typical month with other units.

“We can get the maximum benefit sharing at about six units,” Hansen said. “Beyond that, you can add more units if you want, but you’ve already reached the maximum benefit of the sharing.”

The housing operated by Island Palm Communities on Schofield Barracks, Wheeler Army Air Field, Fort Shafter, Tripler Army Medical Center, Helemano Military Reservation, Red Hill, and Aliamanu will be solar clustered following that successful experiment, according to Lendlease.

“Multi-dwelling unit housing has been a ‘dead space for the solar industry’ until now. The most difficult thing to do in solar is put it on multi-dwelling unit properties, especially rental properties, where you’ve got load uncertainty,” he said. “You can have a high-load tenant or family in one month, and the next month a low-load tenant lives in that unit,” Hansen said.

“You want to get 75% to 80% of the electricity for the residents to be coming from solar,” he said. “That’s kind of the magic number. The sharing allows you to do that and be at that sweet spot while not exporting [to the main grid] … because in California or Hawaii, you don’t get paid very much for that.” In 2015, the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission issued a rule that slashed the amount customers could get for exporting surplus solar energy to Hawaiian Electric Co.

Hawaii is working toward transitioning its energy generation to 100% renewable sources by 2045, and the Island of Palms solar clustering will help it achieve its goals. In 2022, about 32% of the state’s total generation came from renewable sources, compared with 8% in 2008. Hawaii is on the move to meet its goal of generating 40% renewable energy by 2030.

“We’re providing backup power to our residents so if there’s a power outage, they essentially are not impacted by that, These systems can help to stabilize the electrical grid on the island by lowering demand on the grid to help avoid power outages in the future,” Matt Lynn, senior vice president of energy and utilities for Lendlease, told Stars and Stripes.

One of the amenities that is offered by the Island of Palms is they provide utilities free of charge (well, actually, it’s included in the rent) to their residents, including electricity, water, and sewer. Maintenance of utility infrastructure is also covered.

Lendlease, with the help of Holu Hou Energy, is improving the housing and facilities it provides to military families with its solar power clustering system. Additionally, households now have reliable backup power that they may use in the case of a grid outage, or to use daily throughout the year. Also, these systems reduce electricity demand on the Oahu power grid, improving the overall stability of the Hawaiian Electric Co.

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