It can sometimes be easy to overlook that a school community—even one situated under a tropical sun, with steady trade winds and an island ethos—requires a great deal of energy to sustain regular operations. Every day, HPA’s two campus communities use hundreds of kilowatt hours to power everything from kitchen appliances to WiFi and support the needs of nearly 200 campus residents. HPA’s energy use, though perhaps modest compared to schools that were not built to take advantage of trade winds and a tropical climate, are nonetheless significant. The school is expressly committed to achieving 100% renewable energy within the next 10 years. Thanks to a generous crop of curious and innovative students, a bit of elbow grease, and philanthropic friends,
the school is on its way.
Zeroing in on a better grid
The electrical grid that services our cities, institutions, and homes is perhaps one of the most important and least understood of all the systems on which we collectively rely. But this complexity is no deterrent to Nicholas Barrick ’21, who is tackling not only the grid but also another topic too confounding for most: tax policy. “The law that I am seeking to modify is the personal and corporate solar and wind energy tax credit,” Barrick explains. Using the platform of his Global Politics and Policy Implementation capstone course with Eric Mumau, Barrick is writing a provision to an existing tax credit that, if successful, would incentivize the installation of battery systems in Hawai‘i.
Barrick didn’t initially set out to zero in on battery storage—he wanted to find a way to reduce Hawai‘i’s dependence on fossil fuel imports, but such a broad goal required innovative thinking. “Stabilizing Hawai‘i’s grid with increased storage capacity is just one area of focus under a very large umbrella,” he explains. One of the most interesting ideas he’s come across in his research to date is the concept of a “virtual power plant,” a network of independent, decentralized storage and generation sites, such as batteries for solar PV on homes. Barrick explains: “By tying these units into the grid, the grid gains a measure of stability. Batteries, for example, can absorb excess production, and simultaneously disperse power to areas where demand is high. There are already plans to create a virtual power plant within the islands, and I believe my policy will be able to incentivize the infrastructure required to expand and improve the system in the future.”
At HPA, the right battery systems could be a game-changer. Photovoltaic (PV) arrays across campus collect more solar energy than the school can use throughout the day, but production has a narrower window than hours of use. In other words: the school still needs power long after the sun sets.
In order to reach 100% renewable energy, HPA will need to purchase battery systems capable of storing more solar power. At an estimated cost of $1 million, this will only be possible through partnership with generous donors, and the school is currently seeking philanthropic support.
Currently, 18% of HPA’s power comes from solar energy. “But it’s definitely attainable to get to 100% renewable by 2030,” Greg McKenna, HPA’s sustainability resource director, says. It will be a challenge, he admits—the school will need to replace propane heating as well as fuel for campus machinery and transportation—but with a collection of PV panels already up and running and extremely robust monitoring in place, HPA is further along than most.
“HPA is pretty unique,” McKenna says. “There aren’t a lot of boarding schools that are doing such intense electrical measurement.” Thanks to more than a year’s worth of legwork on McKenna’s part, HPA can now put its finger on exactly where its energy is going, where the energy drains are, and what the potential solutions are. “Even small, simple solutions add up; putting a timer on a hot water heater so that it doesn’t run at night can save more than $50 per year,” McKenna says. HPA’s two campuses are also now outfitted with 100% LED lighting, using one-fifth of the energy of standard bulbs. These kinds of reduction and efficiency measures are critical in the long run.
Real data, serious learning
In addition to tackling the school’s electrical infrastructure and energy capacity with audits and engineers, HPA is also doing the real work of a school striving to be the best place in the world for young people to study sustainability. In the field of energy, where the school’s data is both reliable and ever-expanding, students can make a genuine impact on the landscape at HPA.
Anuhea Elliott ’22 is one such student who is learning by doing. In her independent science research class with Dr. Bill Wiecking, Elliott is examining the overall efficiency of the PV array in the field behind the Energy Lab. Thanks to her data, the school knows precisely how efficient the panels are—even up to the hour. “I’m able to graph the maximum kilowatts per square meter to see how the panels are actually performing,” she explains. On average, this system produces about 600kWh per day during the time the sun is up. Elliott has plans to enrich her data by running experiments with the panels: cleaning half, and leaving half as they are to see how it impacts electrical output.
“It has been such a cool collaboration to witness,” Wiecking says. When Elliott needed to know the optimum angle of the sun for panels to collect light, an astronomy-focused friend at the E-Lab, Will Yang ’21, worked with her to figure it out. They discovered that the sun is perfectly positioned for PV panels in Hawai‘i on September 7, and were able to extrapolate from there. “At HPA, you can give someone a problem they’ve never seen, and they say, ‘Ok! I’ll figure it out,’” Wiecking marvels. “It’s the best gift we can give them. We don’t know how else to prepare them for the challenges they’ll meet. When we give them access to real data, they invent with it. It’s pretty exciting to watch.”
Alec Eyckeler ’21 is also running a substantial energy experiment. In Agriculture and Design taught by Willie Quayle, Eyckeler set out to explore irrigation models for HPA’s orchard. Over time, his project morphed into a different water-based design with implications for power: pumped-storage hydropower.
This energy storage system helps to capture excess solar without the use of batteries. PV panels attached to a pump push water from a low reservoir to a higher-altitude reservoir at times when the sun is high and electricity use is low. The water stored in the higher reservoir can then be tapped when extra electricity is needed—using the force of gravity as water runs downhill, turning turbines that generate power along the way.
HPA’s orchard, with approximately 100 feet elevation from top to bottom, is an ideal spot to pilot this technology. If successful, Eyckeler’s project will provide the equivalent of 16 car batteries worth of storage for the garden, allowing for the expansion of WiFi to the outdoor classroom, and charging electric tools and other equipment.
At HPA, you can give someone a problem they’ve never seen, and they say, ‘Ok! I’ll figure it out.
Empowered leaders, engaged citizens
Beyond energy, HPA students are exploring many other environmental challenges and aspects of regenerative sustainability, whether through individual capstone projects or collaborative classroom learning. Last year, Ethan Goore ’21 and Cade Arafiles ’21 used a heat-sensing drone to discover where water pipes were leaking on campus in an effort to help conserve water.
Jessi Sohriakoff ’21 is tackling textile waste with a capstone project dedicated to upcycling used clothing into new face masks. Eighth grader Andrew Sebastian ’25 is creating a website cataloguing the organisms of West Hawai‘i’s coral reef system; Kristin Tarnas’ fifth grade students observe and manage a classroom beehive; and on any given day, students at both the Village Campus and the Upper Campus may be knee-deep in a kalo crop, or deeply immersed in class discussions on the sacred nature and importance of water in Hawai‘i through ancient chants and mele.
While this kind of teaching and learning might seem magical, it is actually part of an intentional and rigorous curriculum design, with extremely dedicated teachers and mentors working in concert with each other and with the school. The highest goal of the HPA Sustainability Plan is to raise up the next generation of young people who will advocate for change and find solutions to the planet’s toughest problems. That’s a tall order, but day by day, HPA students exhibit remarkable ingenuity, expanding their ideas about what is possible—here on HPA’s campus and in the larger world.
Philanthropy Powers Progress
HPA is seeking philanthropists and champions who are interested in helping to move the school’s sustainability vision forward. If you are interested, please reach out to Hannah Hind Candelario ’01, director of advancement, at email@example.com.
Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the spring 2021 issue of Ma Ke Kula.