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Maui engineer moves mountains to complete Palmyra Atoll energy project

Maui engineer Jake Freeman donated more than $120,000 in labor to help complete a $1.2 million renewable energy project at Palmyra Atoll about 1,000 miles south of Hawaii, according to an announcement from The Nature Conservancy.

The conservancy recently announced that it had completed installation of solar and wind systems that will almost eliminate the use of fossil fuels on the remote U.S. territory, which is co-owned and managed as a scientific research station and national wildlife refuge by the conservancy and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“Installing solar and wind energy at Palmyra will reduce our dependence on fossil fuels by 95 percent,” said Mark Fox, acting executive director of the conservancy’s Hawaii and Palmyra programs. “It will eliminate an annual 21,000-gallon shipment of diesel fuel previously used to run the atoll’s generators.”

Freeman, 34, brought 18 staff members from his Maui firm, CDF Engineering, to help with the project, which took six weeks to complete. Freeman graduated from the University of Massachusetts, cum laude, with degrees in civil and environmental engineering before moving to Maui 11 years ago. His firm specializes in infrastructure rehabilitation, renewable energy and low-impact development projects.

“My crew and I became even more dedicated after seeing what Palmyra really was and what The Nature Conservancy and the Fish and Wildlife Service were doing with this Pacific treasure,” Freeman said in a statement.

This wasn’t Freeman’s first job on the atoll. In 2012, he helped repave the atoll’s World War II-vintage runway.

Top researchers from Stanford University, Scripps Institute of Oceanography and other institutions have traveled to Palmyra to study the unique 680-acre atoll and its surrounding marine environment. The research station on Cooper Island, the largest of Palmyra’s 26 islets, is a complex facility that includes 25 buildings, a runway and laboratories.

Buying and shipping the diesel fuel needed to run the research station used to take up more than half of the conservancy’s Palmyra operating budget and produced 349 metric tons of carbon dioxide every year. Including shipping, fuel costs were between $11 and $13 a gallon.

“That’s about 93 cents per kilowatt hour for our energy needs. The average cost on the U.S. Mainland is 12 cents,” said David Sellers, the conservancy’s acting Palmyra director.

Conservancy staff and about 30 volunteers helped install 385 solar panels, a solar hot water system, a deep-cycle battery system and a bird-friendly wind turbine on the 240-acre islet. The project culminated in creating a 100 kilowatt solar microgrid.

The solar panels, a $75,525 donation from by Sun Edison, should be able to charge batteries to 95 percent capacity on sunny days, officials said. The battery storage system includes 216 batteries weighing 200 pounds each. The wind generator, designed by Minnesota firm SheerWind, resembles an hourglass turned on its side. Extending 83 feet horizontally with big wind scoops at either ends, the design uses a Venturi system that increases wind speed three to six times, with nets over the intake and enclosed blades that keep it bird-friendly. Palmyra is home to more than a million nesting seabirds.

“The wind turbine gives us a diversity of power sources, which is really important in a remote location,” Sellers said. “We cannot rely on just one system.”

For extra backup, the conservancy maintains a three-year supply, or 10,000 gallons, of biodiesel made from recycled vegetable oil to run the existing generators.

The project was funded by conservancy trustees and supporters from Oregon, Montana and Hawaii, who donated more than $500,000. R.P. Delio & Co., SunEdison, Big Ass Fans, R and R Solar Supply, Shobu’s Refrigeration, SMA America, Torqeedo and the the Fish and Wildlife Service also made significant contributions, the conservancy news release said.