Shining a light on its burgeoning renewable energy program, the University of Hawaii-Maui College held a dedication ceremony for a new solar panel grid — the first in the state installed by students — at its Kahului campus on Monday.
Sitting on the roof of the sustainable technology classroom building, the solar energy system is made up of 84 photovoltaic panels that feed the campus grid. With electricity flowing from the sun to power their classrooms and offices, the university estimates that the system could save the Maui campus up to $10,000 a year in electric bills and reduce its CO2 emissions by hundreds of pounds.
"Putting a solar panel on the roof is doing the physical work of making a difference," said Shanti Berg, a sustainable construction technology student who worked on the installation. "This builds a base of people to do the actual work."
The panels were installed over the course of the spring semester by a team of 20 students as part of a comprehensive UH-Maui program to train students in solar energy technology. Even before the installation team took to the roof last spring, another team of electronics and computer engineering students spent two semesters designing the grid in the lab.
Both the design and training courses were overseen by UH-Maui faculty and a consultant from renewable energy firm Rising Sun Solar.
"We want to give (students) the kind of training to work at jobs that will be helpful to the islands," said Project Coordinator Stuart Zinner. "It’s tragic that we are burning oil out here with all the renewable energy that we have."
The goal of the program, Zinner said, is to train Maui County students to provide a work force for firms like Rising Sun Solar that are working to develop renewable energy in the islands. While Zinner admits there might not be enough demand in the state to sustain the number of trainees going through the Maui program right now, he is hoping that solar energy firms are encouraged to move to Hawaii to take advantage of the year-round sun and skilled labor pool.
"This is a cart-before-the-horse type of situation," he said. "We want to be able to see that there is demand for renewable energy."
Students are hopeful, too.
Despite the shortage of jobs in Hawaii’s renewable energy industry, a handful of Zinner’s students have found work with local firms. Program organizers also have been working with solar energy companies on Maui to create internships for students.
"It’s a slow time for the economy, and a lot of people are getting ready for what’s coming," Berg said. "We basically have the work force for doing the work of the future."