In 2015, the state of Hawaii committed to converting 100% of its energy supply to renewables by 2045. It’s a steep undertaking, and one that will involve utilities coordinating resources across a network of grids that span the island. And at the same time, the Hawaii Legislature and the University of Hawaii system established a joint goal: The entire university network, which comprises 10 campuses across the islands, will be “net zero” by 2035, meaning that the system would generate as much renewable energy as it consumes.
And now by 2019, UH’s Maui College will be among the first campuses in the nation to generate 100% of its energy from an on-site solar installation, coupled with battery storage.
Johnson Controls, a multinational tech and energy company, designed the solar array, which covers the whole campus, and will enable Maui College to completely eradicate fossil-fuel-based energy when it becomes operational in 2019.
The path to this point, though, began in the 1980s, when Michael Unebasami, now an associate vice president at UH, was serving as the director of admin services at Leeward Community College in Honolulu (2018 is Unebasami’s 50th year in the UH system). An energy company approached the University of Hawaii with a pitch to do performance contracting for the network of campuses. Performance contracting is an approach to energy efficiency in which an energy service company partners with a building to both implement energy-efficiency measures (like reducing water usage and optimizing lighting) and converting from fossil fuels to renewable energy. The energy company pays for the upgrades but also gets paid from the cost savings that come from being more efficient.
Unebasami was intrigued, he tells Fast Company, “but at the time, the university and the state were not ready to enter into that kind of arrangement.” So the idea was tabled, but Unebasami kept it in the back of his mind as he moved up the ranks of the UH system.
Which was likely to the entire university’s benefit: By waiting several decades to implement energy-efficiency measures, UH has been able to benefit from the massive advancements in solar energy and storage that have occurred in the intervening years. And in that time frame, the state of Hawaii had gotten on board the idea of performance contracting, and released a statute in 2010 mandating that government agencies contract with energy companies to implement energy-efficiency retrofitting measures.
Shortly after the state issued that statute, it put out a solicitation for energy companies to apply to do performance contracting for government agencies. At UH, Unebasami bought into that list to access qualified companies who could do work for the university–now that the state had embraced performance contracting, the UH system had the go-ahead. Unebasami’s director of facilities was getting ready to retire that year, but when Unebasami told him of his plan, he postponed his retirement so he could assist on the project. “He got really enthused about it,” Unebasami says. The University of Hawaii campuses were, at the time, facing a backlog of deferred maintenance projects, many of which included repairs to their heating and cooling systems. “Many of our buildings are very old and needed upgrades,” Unebasami says. By entering into a performance contracting agreement, they could tackle those needed upgrades–while going far beyond them.
Johnson Controls’ proposal for performance contracting at the UH system won out, and the company got to work in 2010, first conducting audits of the university’s campuses and implementing energy-efficiency measures. During phase two of the project, which began several years ago, Johnson Controls built out and installed an array of on-site solar panels in the form of shade canopies and rooftop installations, and connected them up to batteries, which will be able to store enough energy to power the entirety of Maui College’s campus on solar; other community colleges within the system will see reductions in fossil-fuel energy use from 70% to 98%.
While the new energy efficiency measures and solar arrays will save the UH system around $78 million, that’s not what makes it unique: Johnson Controls and UH have also partnered on an educational program, featuring curriculum, an internship program, and workshops for faculty and students, that will roll out alongside the new energy systems. “Typically, these performance contracts are strictly construction, but we’re a community college,” Unebasami says.