Net Zero project could be first in nation for college campus
If you’ve driven in the last few months along Wahinepio Avenue — the street that runs between our campus and the Maui Arts & Cultural Center — we hope you’ve noticed a lot of activity behind our ‘Ike Le’a (Science) Building.
Construction began in February and now, our solar panel array is almost complete. There’s still work to do, including testing to ensure we’re in compliance with our agreement with Maui Electric Co. and the way our project will impact the island’s grid. But after seven years of hard work on the part of many people from our college, the University of Hawaii system, multinational energy service company Johnson Controls, investor Pacific Current (a tier 1 subsidiary of Hawaiian Electric Industries), various sub-contractors and other supporters, we’re almost ready to, as Project Manager Lowen Okamoto likes to say, “press the button.”
Keep your fingers crossed with us. Because if all goes well, Okamoto adds that, “We’re hoping that we can officially have this system up and online by the end of this year.” That will complete our Net Zero Electricity project ahead of the schedule we set for ourselves and more than 15 years ahead of the deadline set by Gov. David Ige for all 10 campuses of the University of Hawaii to achieve this goal. Perhaps most exciting is that UH-Maui College is on track to officially become the first college campus in the United States to achieve this extraordinarily important sustainability and environmental milestone.
We were grateful and humbled last month when Johnson Controls won two noteworthy national awards for their partnership with us. The Environmental Leaders Project of the Year and Top Project Judges’ Choice Award were presented by the prestigious Environmental Leader organization. The awards panel said that our project “sets the standard for universities, colleges and other campuses to achieve net zero energy status and proves that 100 percent renewable projects are technically and economically viable. The project brings the college’s emissions down to near zero and will have ripple effects throughout the country as others try and follow suit.”
It’s more than just an array of solar panels and huge batteries to store the electricity generated. The project also includes a lighting retrofit, a replacement of a chiller, transformer and window film. A project of this size and scope is not without obstacles. Luckily, we are surrounded by creative minds.
“The site is on sandy soil so we needed to comply with State Historical Preservation Division rules and be as unobtrusive as possible,” says Okamoto. “That’s why we used ballast blocks. The electrical conduits are the only things in the ground,” he adds.
The project site covers 4 acres. So another consideration is how to cut the grass that’s going to grow under the panels. Enter Jordan Little of Pacific Current, our investor partner, with another brilliant idea.
“We’re currently evaluating if sheep can be used to sustainably maintain the landscaping underneath the solar panels,” she says. “At Pacific Current, we believe that clean energy is the future and we’re excited to partner with UH-Maui College as they demonstrate their leadership by quickly meeting the net zero goals. We look forward to ensuring this system operates at its best over its lifetime.”
Most important, I believe, is that the project speaks to our college’s innovation, to our responsibility to our community. It provides a deeper experience for our students. It says, “Look what we can do to protect our values and our environment.” I want our Maui Nei parents to say, “That’s the kind of education I want for my kids.”
If you’d like to travel one of the world’s most exciting and dynamic career paths, think about a degree in Sustainable Science Management. To learn more about UH-Maui College’s Sustainable Science Management program, please visit maui.hawaii.edu/ssm/.
To learn about all our programs, visit maui.hawaii.edu/programs-of-study/.
* Lui K. Hokoana is chancellor of the University of Hawaii Maui College. Ka’ana Mana’o, which means “sharing thoughts,” appears on the fourth Sunday of each month. It is prepared with assistance from UH-Maui College staff and is intended to provide the community of Maui County information about opportunities available through the college at its Kahului campus and its education centers.