You are here

Sustainability Update

Hawaii’s Hot Sun Cools Down Energy Costs

A pilot solar panel project on the roof of Aiea High School in Honolulu, Hawaii.
A pilot solar panel project on the roof of Aiea High School in Honolulu, Hawaii.

The Hawaii State Department of Education has embarked on a first- and largest-plan-of-its-kind nationwide to install solar panels in every school in the state. The plan will reduce the sunny state’s school energy costs from $47 million per year to zero, and generate revenue from extra energy that could go back to schools, school officials say.

The district will incorporate solar power into its curriculum, weaving sustainable energy lessons into K12 classrooms, in hopes that students will leave with an awareness and possibly a career interest in renewable energy. “We’ve incorporated a real educational aspect, putting the solar ‘labs’ in the schools and fostering a curriculum that focuses on renewable energy,” says Ray L’Heureux, assistant superintendent of the office of school facilities and support services. “When you start talking about bringing your schools into the 21st century, you have to consider not only the common core curriculum, but also your facilities, which will support the academic piece.”

Hawaii Public Schools is the tenth largest district in the United States, encompassing the entire state, and includes 256 schools. The state has the highest energy costs in the nation, paying 40 cents per kilowatt hour, while mainland states pay 14 cents, as they have the benefit of a large interconnected system, and the ability to manage the grid in a more economical way with the use of coal, nuclear, and, to a small degree, natural gas. In 2011-2012, it cost $47 million to power Hawaii’s schools, L’Heureux says.

This month, the Department of Education plans to enter an agreement with a vendor, unknown at the time of the magazine’s publication, to install panels in all public schools, and from whom it will buy solar power at a reduced rate, according to Gilbert Chun, auxiliary services branch administrator. The Department of Education will pay no upfront costs thanks to the Power Purchase Agreement, a 20-year contract with the vendor to host the solar panels and purchase the power they generate, Chun says. In return, the vendor will receive tax credits and income from the power sale.

The goal is to have solar panels installed in every school within five years, and power all schools for no cost. If the schools generate more power than they use, they can sell the energy back to the company and make a profit. Once the systems are in place, the district expects about $500 million in savings over 15 years, L’Heureux says, though estimates are difficult to make at this point, he notes.

Hundreds of solar companies have been established in the state in recent years, causing a greater demand for careers in this field, L’Heureux adds. “We want to encourage students, especially in Hawaii, to adopt STEM disciplines, and this is a perfect opportunity to do that,” says Sarah McCann, energy efficiency and sustainability master plan acting program manager for the initiative. “We have an aging workforce, and need to find people with the skills to do this kind of work. Hopefully it will help, and set a model for the rest of the nation.”