Solar PV On A Frog, In A Manner Of Speaking

What do you get when you put solar photovoltaics on a smart frog? That’s what scientists in Hawaii are trying to find out.

The Hawaii Natural Energy Institute is studying different solar technologies installed on school buildings from Project Frog, the California company that specializes in green, pre-fab structures. The goal is to get a more precise understanding of how different solar technologies operate – and how they affect the performance of the state-of-the-art buildings.

project frog hnei hawaii

Project Frog research platform at Ilima Intermediate School. (image via HNEI/ UH SOEST)

For this research, three 1,200-square-foot Project Frog building are being used – one erected at Ilima Intermediate School in Ewa Beach, Oahu, and two at Kawaikini New Century Public Charter School in Lihue, Kauai.

The “pre-engineered test platforms incorporate passive design elements to decrease energy demand, thus increasing the effectiveness of its PV systems,” HNEI said [PDF]. They also come with sophisticated monitoring systems, allowing the researchers to track things like temperature, humidity, CO2 levels and lighting levels for comfort, as well as lighting, air conditioning and fan consumption for energy.

Meanwhile, the researchers put six different combinations of solar technology on the buildings. PV type is one variable, with panels using thin-film technology, amorphous silicon and traditional monocrystalline silicon in play. But there’s more to turning sunlight into usable electricity than the panel. According to the institute:

Another variable to be evaluated is the effectiveness and efficiency of the inverters. Inverters convert DC (direct current) power generated by the PV panels into AC (alternating current) in order to feed into the utility grid. Two inverter configurations are being tested, a single string inverter and micro-inverters. String inverters convert energy from multiple panels. Micro-inverters are installed one per panel.

 

Funding for this research comes through the Office of Naval Research, which has a huge presence in Hawaii and has turned to HNEI to give it insight into “the performance of these experimental buildings and integrated energy systems for potential future Navy applications in the Pacific region” – but, of course, the insights gained will be applicable beyond the Navy.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.