Coming soon: The first 100pc energy-efficient campus in the US
In 2015, the state of Hawaii set out to achieve a lofty goal – it was the first in the US to make the unprecedented commitment to achieving 100 percent renewable energy by 2045.
Off the back of that, the University of Hawaii (UH) university system and the Hawaii Legislature established its own target, stipulating that 10 campuses within the system would be “net-zero” by January 1, 2035. This means the schools would be 100 percent energy-efficient, generating and using its own energy on-site.
Today, the UH Maui College is on track to achieving that goal, 15 years ahead of schedule. If all goes according to plan, the college will be supplying 100 percent of its own energy needs through photovoltaic panels and battery storage by year-end.
It will be the first campus in the US to do so.
“Keep your fingers crossed with us,” college Chancellor Lui K. Hokoana urges the Maui community in an Op-Ed on local portal The Maui News.
The achievement is the culmination of seven years of hard work and a partnership arrangement between the institution, multinational energy service Johnson Control and investor firm Pacific Current (a subsidiary of Hawaiian Electric Industries).
Phase one of the project was the implementation of energy efficiency measures at UH Maui and across all UH campuses. The second phase covers the installation of the solar PV panels on-site. This will bring the total on-site capacity to 2.8 MW of solar PV and 13.2 MWh of battery distributed energy storage at the college.
Other than the solar array and batteries, the project also includes a lighting retrofit, a replacement of a chiller, transformer and window film.
Construction on the solar panel array began in February and is now nearly complete. What follows will be testing for compliance per the institution’s agreement with Maui Electric Co and how the project would impact the island’s grid.
“But… we’re almost ready to, as Project Manager Lowen Okamoto likes to say, ‘press the button’,” Hokoana said.
Of course, a project of such size and scope has its obstacles, he added.
“Luckily, we are surrounded by creative minds.”
As the site is on sandy soil, project coordinators needed to comply with State Historical Preservation Division rules and “be as unobtrusive as possible”, Hokoana says, quoting Okamoto.
Another consideration was how to cut the grass that would grow beneath the panels, which sits on a project site spanning 4 acres. Hokoana says Jordan Little of Pacific Partner came up with an idea to potentially use sheep to maintain the landscaping.
The entire project places UH Maui College at the forefront of the sustainability agenda. According to Michael Unebasmi, a university spokesman, the project also makes “economic sense given the cost of fuel on the remote Pacific archipelago of islands and atolls.” Due to reliance on fossil fuels, energy prices in Hawaii are more than twice the national average, according to US Energy Information Administration data cited in a Reuters report last year.
Johnson Controls has won two national awards for the project so far – the Environmental Leaders Project of the Year and Top Project Judges’ Choice Award that were presented by the Environmental Leader organisation.
According to Hokoana, the awards panel said the 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.”
“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’,” Hokoana says.
Across the US, about half a dozen educational institutions have made similar commitments in recent years to use renewable energy sources. These include leading institutions like Boston University, Colorado State University and Cornell University, among others.