About a decade ago, the University of Hawaii Manoa set an aggressive goal to cut its energy consumption in half by 2015.

It failed. Miserably.

Instead, it achieved a 2.5 percent reduction — something akin to the energy savings you’d get by changing one or two regular incandescent light bulbs in your house to fluorescent.

Why did the campus fall so far short?

UH University of Hawaii Manoa campus with very few rooftops with solar photo voltaic systems. NO PV.
Even today, few buildings at the University of Hawaii Manoa have solar photo voltaic systems on the roofs. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

There were several factors: failure to fully integrate sustainability and clean energy practices into the campus culture, administrative turnover and politics.

The energy policy adopted in 2006 said that as the state’s primary research institution, UH Manoa should be spearheading the push for clean energy, given its location on a Pacific island in the nation’s most fossil fuel-dependent state.

The policy also called for the campus to become self-sufficient through the use of renewable energy by 2050, a goal it still has a shot at.

Steve Meder, associate professor of architecture at UH Manoa, who helped craft the policy, said it’s now critical that UH make an effort to bring a renewable energy approach into all aspects of its mission, including research, building design and curriculum.

“UH had a chance … to be a leader in (sustainability) as an institution and it’s never really been able to institutionally put the stake in the ground,” he said.

At one point, Meder said, UH was supposed to offer a sustainability degree, but that fell through. And in meetings to plan for campus facilities, administrators have argued it wasn’t necessary to aim for LEED certification, which holds buildings to a higher standard of efficiency.

“Administrators should not have the influence to knock something like (green building design) off course.” – Steve Meder, associate professor of architecture

He said administrative turbulence has been a hindrance.

“Every time an administrator changed, it seemed like the wheel had to be reset,” he said.

Meder credited former interim Chancellor Denise Konan for starting many energy efficiency and climate change initiatives at UH. But when she left that position — she’s now a dean of the College of Social Sciences — the energy reduction goals outlined in a policy she created seemed to have gone with her.

Former Chancellor Tom Apple was poised to start sustainability curriculum at UH, but after he was fired, efforts waned.

Meder said energy conservation and sustainability issues need to be viewed as part of UH’s core objectives.

“Administrators should not have the influence to knock something like this off course,” Meder said.

Picking Up Speed

Matthew Lynch, UH sustainability office coordinator, said UH Manoa had been unable to reach its full potential because turnovers in administration make planning and operating more difficult.

Much of Lynch’s focus has been on understanding relationships in the university and Legislature to decipher the main obstacles. This has formed the foundation for the office’s current work, which is establishing new approaches to energy management on a small scale, to be taken to a larger scale eventually.

There have been some bright spots in the effort to reduce energy consumption.

UH Manoa didn’t cut its energy use in half by 2015, but it has dropped by 6.4 percent since 2007. (Energy use on campus actually increased from 2003 to 2007.)

Despite the addition of three major buildings since 2007, energy-saving projects like motion-sensing lighting controls have allowed the university to still decrease net energy consumption. The recreation center, which opened in 2014, is LEED certified and helps capture water to be circulated in the campus irrigation system.

Last year, the campus produced 505,285 kilowatt-hours of solar energy — the equivalent of 50 to 100 homes with rooftop solar energy generation.

UH has goals in place to become net-zero in energy use by 2035 and carbon neutral by 2050.

In February 2015, UH President David Lassner signed the Executive Sustainability Policy, which calls for the statewide system to encourage sustainability efforts in curriculum, facilities planning (and LEED certification), scholarships and even food purchases. The policy also calls for UH to be carbon neutral by 2050, which means each campus must eliminate as much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as it produces.

Under Act 99, which was signed into law last year, UH needs to reach a net-zero status 2035 — producing as much energy it uses — so the system has to look at ways to meet this goal first.

Plans are underway for a utility-scale, 100-megawatt solar photovoltaic facility — the UH West Oahu Mauka Lands project. UH is currently working with its in-house Hawaii Natural Energy Institute and the electrical utility to get started.

Solar power alone won’t cut it, even with the plant at UH West Oahu in the works, Lynch said. UH Hilo is researching creating energy from organic waste, and other options need to be explored.

Students walk on UH Manoa campus February 2, 2014.
University of Hawaii students on the Manoa campus in February 2014. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

With the establishment of the nearly year-old sustainability office, Lynch is confident that there will be a “significant difference” in UH’s energy management. He hopes to meet the net-zero mandate ahead of schedule.

But things only get more complicated at the Legislature, where lawmakers like Rep. Isaac Choy, who heads the Higher Education Committee, have been reticent to invest funds for campus improvements.

If legislators agreed to chip in more to fund low-risk, high-return energy efficiency projects, Lynch said, it would help.

“It’s tough when you’re trying to make long-term planning decisions when you’re dealing with shorter-term budgeting cycles,” Lynch said. “Would we be able to move faster and further with the full support of the Legislature? Absolutely.”

Richard Wallsgrove, program director of the Blue Planet Foundation, said pairing sustainability with maintenance projects is an “incredibly important” part of making energy efficiency efforts work at universities.

UH Manoa has notoriously struggled to get the Legislature’s support for its deferred maintenance backlog, currently at $503 million.

It also can be tricky to show lawmakers how cost effective it is to invest in energy efficient technology at the university, Wallsgrove said.

The way UH secures funding from the Legislature is inconsistent with the way that sustainable energy projects work — they typically show a return on investment over several years, but the university submits budget requests annually.

Wallsgrove believes UH can significantly cut back on energy consumption, but the university needs to implement more “smart” technologies, which automatically regulate systems that consume the most energy on campus, such as lighting or air conditioning.

A Campus That Got It Right

Wallsgrove pointed to the University of California, San Diego, which generates about 85 percent of its own energy. The campus has an onsite Energy Innovation Park that uses mediums such as a solar fuel cell that converts methane gas to create energy.

Byron Washom, director of the univeristy’s strategic energy initiatives, said UCSD has “a variety of different sources of energy generation, and we think of it as a portfolio.”  

Solar panels across the campus are set up on a “solar forecasting” system. A fisheye camera in the sky is used to predict the location of clouds over a 2.5 mile radius and adjust solar panels accordingly.

Washom said UH Maui College already uses a similar system.

Although UH Manoa has a ways to go, the Honolulu and San Diego campuses do have some efforts in common.

Both now strive for LEED certification on all new construction, encourage students to avoid driving individually and organize competitions between students on various floors of dormitories to see who can save the most energy.

Student involvement is important at UCSD, Washom said.

“We have about 80 different student groups on campus with about over 800 students that are involved,” Washom said. “One of my favorites is water conservation — they call themselves the ‘aquaholics.’

Some students even have the facilities management office on speed dial if something looks out of place, like a leaking sprinkler. When students were encouraged to talk with the chancellor for a few minutes, sustainability was the second-most discussed issue, just behind cost of tuition.

Representative Chris Lee. Civil Beat Editorial Board Meeting. 11 sept 2015. photograph Cory Lum/CIvil Beat
Rep. Chris Lee, who helped put UH’s net-zero mandate into place, is a member of the House Energy and Environmental Protection Committee. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Getting Support At the State Capitol

Rep. Chris Lee introduced the bill that became Act 99. He said the university would need to show it can manage money efficiently for green projects, especially because many energy-saving mechanisms are relatively new.

Lee said the Legislature is interested in reducing UH’s electric bill, which is paid by taxpayers and student tuition.

“If UH can spend the next year or two to show progress in using the resources they have … that hopefully can instill a lot more confidence amongst some of the more skeptical legislators,” Lee said.

He mentioned green revolving funds, which UH uses to pay for an energy-efficient project and its upkeep through the savings that result from its installation. Other projects, including those from the deferred maintenance backlog, can also be paid for from these savings.

“UH has really suffered from a growing backlog of deferred maintenance,” Lee said. “If it makes sense to update these buildings, it ought to be done with efficiency in mind.”

Though the university has failed to lead on energy thus far, Lee said UH is in a prime position to take advantage of the latest technology and help Hawaii reach its goal of becoming 100 percent renewable by 2045.

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