The Hawaii Department of Education recently announced the launch of a bold plan to significantly cut down on energy costs by outfitting schools with alternative energy technologies including solar and wind.

Though the department still needs to calculate how much money could be saved at each individual public school, officials say the plan could cut costs by as much as $12 million a year on energy, or about 25 percent of the roughly $48 million it spends. The anticipated benefits of the shift to solar energy account for the bulk of the expected savings.

But the “Ka Hei” initiative, as it’s being called, hinges largely on schools’ ability to connect proposed solar systems to the electrical grid, which is a problem in many parts of the state because of what the Hawaiian Electric Company describes as over-saturation issues.

As Civil Beat reported last fall, hundreds of Oahu residents who installed solar panels in 2013 expecting to receive tax credits haven’t been able to reap those benefits because of a rule change HECO implemented in September.

Citing what HECO says is the large unanticipated overflow of solar power, the electric company has ordered customers and contractors to submit solar permits to the utility before starting the installation process. The situation has left some people who have installed solar panels unable to use them and many prospective customers waiting for HECO to essentially give them the OK to use solar power.

The DOE appears to be dealing with similar problems, which risk leaving elements of the Ka Hei project in limbo.

The contract for Ka Hei is expected to cost $1 billion, according to one estimate. (See the lawsuit posted below.)

Despite their massive investment, the school system is in a similar situation to other energy consumers who want to innovate, said DOE facilities superintendent Raymond L’Heureux, who highlighted the plight of customers in places like Ewa. “We’re just one customer — we just happen to be a very large one.”

At a Monday meeting with lawmakers on the energy and education committees, L’Heureux and others stressed that the department is working with HECO to find solutions to solar hook-up limitations. One idea is to co-pilot innovative technological solutions that might eventually be replicated outside of schools.

“We’re working in concert with HECO to find solutions,” L’Heureux told Civil Beat after the meeting. “We’re such a big customer that we might be able to assist them in doing that.”

HECO President and CEO Dick Rosenblum said in a statement that the collaboration with the Department of Education is key to the electric company’s efforts to integrate customer-produced renewable energy into the utility’s grid.

But for now, officials say, it remains unclear whether solar power is feasible at schools in neighborhoods like Ewa that already face connectivity difficulties.

The department has already had difficulties recouping energy savings despite a separate pilot project that has involved installing solar panels at 47 schools on Oahu and Kauai since 2011. The department even needed to request nearly $11 million more from the state last year to cover this year’s unforeseen utility costs because the pilot project hasn’t produced the expected savings.

Ka Hei

Last week, the DOE announced the launch of Ka Hei, which means “to absorb knowledge or skill” and also denotes the type of snare that the Hawaiian god Maui utilized to capture the sun.

The DOE also announced that Chevron Energy Solutions has been selected to lead the effort.

L’Heureux and energy officials, including the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute’s Richard Rocheleau and the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism’s Mark Glick, touted the program’s ambitious and innovative plans on Monday, including the goal of installing energy-saving equipment at every public school statewide within three years. That includes the installation of solar panels at about 30 schools in areas with “open” HECO circuits during Ka Hei’s first phase, which is slated to last run through early 2015. The DOE and Chevron haven’t yet made clear which schools they will focus on initially.

Overall, the DOE’s goal is for the entire school district to run on 90 percent clean energy by 2040.

L’Heureux and others also point to Ka Hei’s educational components, including “living laboratories” that will be developed starting this year. In these “laboratories” teachers incorporate the energy-saving technology into lesson plans and projects. The idea is partly to engage students in science, technology, engineering and math, and to provide real-world scenarios with actual data on clean energy systems.

L’Heureux said the project will avoid any delays from HECO in the first phase by creating miniature grids at several schools that can operate independently of the utility’s grid. A total of three unnamed schools on Oahu, Maui and the Big Island will be equipped with these “microgrids,” technology that L’Heureux said could eventually be expanded to other schools and that could “minimize the impact” on HECO’s power flow.

But he and other officials couldn’t confirm what other solar solutions they might use beyond the three microgrids, or which schools will benefit from the phase-one solar installations, citing the need to conduct audits of every school — a process that is scheduled to last through mid-2016.

“We understand that the landscape in which we’re working is one that we haven’t worked with before, but we have to adapt,” L’Heureux said.

Lawmakers on Monday said they understand the circumstances but urged the DOE and Chevron Energy Solutions to take stock of all the factors at play before advancing too far.

Meanwhile, Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland, who attended Monday’s meeting, asked the department to also look at more cost-effective solutions, including simple landscaping techniques that could help cool campuses in ways that don’t touch on energy use. (A bill making its way through the Legislature, Senate Bill 2424, would require the DOE to develop a plan to address the cooling needs of classrooms statewide through air conditioning and other technology by 2015.)

Chevron Contract

And then there’s a separate issue involving the DOE’s partnership with Chevron Energy Solutions. A pending lawsuit filed last July contends that a former DOE employee working on the project was wrongfully terminated after she blew the whistle on Education officials who she says ordered her to destroy an audit showing Chevron’s procurement proposal was invalid. The audit, according to the lawsuit, concluded that the DOE should’ve granted the other bidder — Prime Solutions, Inc. — the award.

DOE spokeswoman Donalyn Dela Cruz declined to comment on the lawsuit, citing the pending litigation, while L’Heureux emphasized that the case is a personnel matter unrelated to the Ka Hei program. They noted, however, that the DOE recently reviewed the two companies’ proposals in response to a protest filed in November by Prime Solutions and found that Chevron’s proposal “provides the best value to the State, taking into consideration price and devaluation criteria.” Prime Solutions didn’t appeal the decision.

The employee who filed the lawsuit, Sarah McCann, also declined to comment on the case.

L’Heureux said the lawsuit had no impact on the Ka Hei plan other than the delays. The DOE resumed planning for Ka Hei in January, months later than originally planned.

Lawsuit:

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