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Molokai lassoes sun to cool classrooms

Thanks to a 6th-grader’s presidential campaign promise, 33 solar hybrid air-conditioning units are bringing waves of relief to hot classrooms at two Molokai elementary schools.

After Kaunakakai student Leonahe Crivello pledged to get her classmates air conditioning and then explained her goal to NextEra last September, the Florida-based energy giant donated the units to Kaunakakai and Kilohana elementary schools. “We are extremely proud of Leonahemaikekaimalie Crivello, ‘Leonahe’ as we fondly call her, to take the initiative to talk personally with (NextEra),” Kaunakakai Principal Janice Espiritu said. “I felt that as president of the student council she was taking the lead.”

At 1 p.m. today Kaunakakai will hold an assembly with state Department of Education officials to celebrate the arrival of the units, which Oahu-based renewable energy company Greenpath Technologies installed last month.

In an interview with The Maui News, Leonahe said she wanted to focus on hot classrooms when she ran for student council president last summer.

“It’s not fair that only certain classrooms have air conditioning,” Leonahe recalled saying in her speech. “We need to work hard together as a school to make that happen.”

Located on Molokai’s sun-baked south shore, some of Kaunakakai Elementary’s 23 classrooms have indoor temperatures that can soar above 90 degrees, Espiritu said. Students have broken out in hives, and a teacher once fainted from the heat.

“It’s hot. I die in there,” said Leonahe, who has gotten rashes that a doctor attributed to the heat.

Espiritu said solar vents and fans were unable to reduce the heat to tolerable levels.

As part of its statewide heat abatement program, the DOE aims to bring classroom temperatures down to 76 degrees. The department provided Kaunakakai with 12 portable air-conditioning units for some of Kaunakakai’s 23 classrooms, but only six were installed because the school’s outdated electrical wiring “couldn’t take the added power,” Espiritu said. The school is due for a $1.4 million electrical upgrade around December, she added.

After Leonahe won the election, her grandmother, Maui County Council Member Stacy Crivello, introduced her to NextEra Energy Hawaii President Eric Gleason at Molokai’s Pizza Cafe last September.

“She comes up to me and says, ‘I just won an election to be (student council) president. I promised them that I would get them air conditioning,’ ” Gleason said. “I couldn’t forget her. She’s a very persuasive young lady.”

Gleason connected with public school officials in November to see how NextEra could help and if there were other island schools that could use air conditioning. The DOE suggested Kilohana Elementary, located about 13 miles down the east end. Principal Terri Simms reported similar issues with heat in the school’s seven classrooms.

“Some temperatures were in the 90s in classrooms,” she said. “That’s pretty hot . . . We’re the windward part of Molokai and we’re normally a little bit cooler.”

School officials had been considering air conditioning, but they knew it was expensive, Simms said, adding that Kilohana was “very blessed” to be tapped by NextEra.

After site visits to both schools, Greenpath had rooftop photovoltaic panels and air conditioning units installed by March 25, President Briand Achong said.

“The project moved extremely fast,” said Lindsay Ball, DOE complex area superintendent for Molokai, Lanai, Hana and Lahainaluna. “This literally is a too-good-to-be-true situation.”

Unit costs and installation totaled $330,000, Gleason said. Kaunakakai received 25 units for 14 classrooms and Kilohana got eight for four classrooms.

Gleason said principals helped identify the hottest rooms, some of which were big and hot enough to warrant multiple units. He added that Maui Electric Co. supported the project and that the units should create less stress on MECO’s grid because they rely 90 percent on solar energy. The sun that once overheated classrooms now powers its cooling system.

“It’s largely a self-powered air-conditioning unit,” Gleason said. “It’s a way of reducing the problem of overheating classrooms while at the same time not adding significantly to the school’s electricity bill, and also using renewable energy.”

Air conditioning in schools has been a burning topic across the state. The DOE ramped up its heat abatement efforts last summer, DOE spokeswoman Donalyn Dela Cruz said. Since then, the department has installed portable air conditioning units in 109 classrooms and provided more than 500 classrooms with heat reflective materials or ceiling fans, according to its website.

While Council Member Crivello helped connect Leonahe to Gleason, she credited her granddaughter’s ambition.

“This was all Leonahe’s project as student council president,” she said. “I was just being her tutu and giving her guidance.”

Leonahe was just excited to see it all fall into place.

Gleason “said he could try to do it, but then he did it!” Leonahe exclaimed. “I wrote a letter and sent it to him and he followed through.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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