East Maui teens, residents benefit from solar training

With a mere 30 solar water heating systems in Hana, a program teaching students how to install the systems and educate them about its benefits could prompt more East Maui residents to invest in alternative energy, with proponents saying that a household could save as much as 40 percent on its electric bill with the systems.

Hawaii Energy, a conservation and efficiency program, recently teamed up with Ma Ka Hana Ka ‘Ike, a nonprofit, award-wining construction-skills training program for at-risk youth in Hana, to install solar water heating systems in three homes in the area.

The students were mentored by licensed professionals to install the systems and order materials. They also learned a variety of plumbing skills including soldering, insulating and constructing to code.

While some teens in Rick Rutiz’s construction-skills training program already had experience with solar, Rutiz said that this project included some of the largest systems they have worked with. One system had five 4-foot-by-10-foot solar panels. Some included three 120-gallon water tanks.

“It was the largest systems we have ever done. Just working with different contractors is always a learning experience,” said Rutiz, the program’s executive director.

He added, “We are trying to train future people in the trades. All these hands-on experiences are great.”

Ray Starling, Hawaii Energy’s program director said: “We are excited to be part of this project, which not only facilitated the installation of solar water heating systems for in-need households in Hana, but also provided an opportunity for the training of Ma Ka Hana Ka ‘Ike team members and students in the design, installation and maintenance of these systems.”

Hawaii Energy is a ratepayer-funded conservation and efficiency program administered by Science Applications International Corp. under contract with the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission. It offers cash rebates and other incentives to residents and businesses to help offset the cost of installing energy-efficient equipment, a release said. The group also conducts education and training for the public and is playing a role in Hawaii’s goal of reducing total electric energy usage by 30 percent by 2030.

Hawaii Energy paid for the systems and other costs provided by Inter-Island Solar Supply Maui and Redo Trucking, which delivered the items. Green Global Communities Inc. also assisted with the project. Hawaii Energy is in the process of inspecting the systems to ensure that the installations conform to its solar water heating system standards and specifications. Ongoing system service and maintenance will be provided by Ma Ka Hana Ka ‘Ike and/or individuals from Hana, a release said.

Hana High School student Brandon Naihe said that he didn’t know much about solar installation before the project came along. But, at the end of the project the 16-year-old knew a lot more about pipes and how heat and pressure all work together in a solar water heater.

“The best part (is) you get to work with your friends and you all learn at the same time,” he said of the project that was completed about a month ago.

Ma Ka Hana Ka ‘Ike supervisor and former student participant James Freudenberg-Pu learned more about the solar water installation process and now knows how to do it from “beginning to end.”

“For sure, it is helpful for me in my future, so I can do it for my own house,” Freudenberg-Pu said. “I could teach the kids to do it.”

But installing the systems also had an emotional side to it, as Freudenberg-Pu said some families didn’t have hot water due to electric heaters that were not working.

“It made me feel good.”

Rutiz said that the group has always been doing projects to help those who would not be able to do the installation and construction projects by themselves.

He said he has received a lot of inquiries about getting solar water systems since the project has been going on.

Brian Fitzgerald, spokesman for Hawaii Energy, said that if a household of four or more switches to a solar water heater, it can save up to 40 percent, or about $600, a year on its electric bill. (That is without air conditioning or a swimming pool.)

Hawaii Energy’s $1,000 instant rebate, combined with applicable state and federal tax credits, reduces the cost of the average solar water heating system from approximately $6,600 to about $2,000, although credits are subject to change, Fitzgerald said in an email.

There may be other costs that cause the price to vary.

He did not have a total cost figure for the Hana project but said that “the return on investment was threefold.”

“We helped to educate Hana students,” Fitzgerald said. “We helped families in Hana to become more energy efficient and we helped decrease Hana’s dependence on oil.”

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.