May, 2008 Vol. 33 No. 2
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Safe water May 2005

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Mānoa sustainability council

Sustainable Saunders project

Hawaiʻi Natural Energy Institute

Center for Smart Building and Community Design

Published May 2008

Mānoa Gets Green

The campus enters its second century with a focus on sustainability and commitment to reducing its environmental footprint

by Paula Bender
student volunteer collecting recyclable materials

The University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa’s Saunders Hall opened in 1974 with energy-conserving features of the day—bronze glass to reduce heat gain and low-energy, low-heat mercury lights. Hardly green by today’s standards, the building formerly known as Porteus is now a field site for testing more efficient operation. The Sustainable Saunders Initiative, a pilot project in the UH–Hawaiian Electric Company Energy Partnership, is spearheaded by the College of Social Sciences’ Public Policy Center and an independent student organization called the Sustainable Saunders HUB, for "Help Us Bridge." Shanah Trevenna, a mechanical engineering graduate pursuing master’s work in alternative futures, coordinates more than a dozen projects including alternative energy, water catchment, xeriscaping, recycling and worm composting. "Our passionate team of students believes in leading by example," she says. "We try to use Earth-friendly products at our events and showcase vendors and services that are local and sustainable."

"Saunders Hall is a giant concrete bunker," observes Associate Professor David Nixon, principal investigator for the initiative. "We use a lot of resources here while we are at work. We wanted to see what we could test in this building for energy efficiency and roll out to the rest of the campus and to the community." UH pays $1.5 million per month for electricity. Saunders’ seven floors of offices and classrooms account for more than $150,000 of that. Early in 2008, a de-lamping project began removing hundreds of light bulbs. It was a small step, but resoundingly successful pilot—175 people participated; real savings resulted, Nixon says.

Change for the better

wind turbine

"We didn’t want just to reduce the electric bill, but also to create a more pleasant working environment," he says. Students built courtyard picnic tables out of recycled plastics. The Horticulture Club is greening up the balconies. Sixth-floor restrooms feature low-flow toilets and no-flow urinals. At the sinks, water spins turbines in the drains, creating energy to power sensors that release tap water when hands are waved under the spigots. On the roof, an essentially silent and bird-friendly vertical axis wind turbine, contributed by Energy Management Group, and a solar PV array are being testing. If successful at Saunders, systems can be fitted throughout the university system and scaled to larger facilities, allowing communities to benefit from the UH experience, says Energy Management Group President Richard Figliuzzi.

Campus-wide, Mānoa has set a goal of generating 25 percent of its own electricity from renewable sources by 2020 and becoming energy independent by 2050. Leading the effort is the Sustainability Council, whose Kuleana Program trains volunteer coordinators to encourage sustainable practices in their workplaces. In March, the council brought together faculty from fields as diverse as English, physics and engineering who have incorporated sustainability content in their courses. "With a trans-disciplinary topic such as sustainability, no one person can cover even a fraction of the issues," says Mary Tiles, council chair and professor of philosophy.

In addition, the Mānoa Climate Commission is addressing carbon dioxide reduction efforts (oceanography graduate student Craig Coleman is working on a campus CO2 inventory) and focusing on island adaptation to climate change. Two members—urban planning’s Makena Coffman and oceanographer Lorenz Maagard—sit on the State Climate Change Task Force.

Research initiatives

College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources faculty are addressing the politics and economics of water use and identifying promising crops for biofuels, such as the drought-tolerant Jatropha curcas tree. Professor David Christopher employs technology to hasten the benefits of crossbreeding. "People often think that genetic engineering is working against the environment," he observes. "That’s not true. Our goal is to make plants more resistant to pests and pathogens that attack them so that farmers don’t have to power up their tractors and spray their fields with chemicals that linger in the environment or run off into streams and rivers."

At the Hawaiʻi Natural Energy Institute, Coral Industries Professor of Renewable Energy Resources Michael Antal has created a Flash Carbonization Reactor pressure vessel that efficiently converts green waste—including corn cobs, macadamia nut shells, invasive weeds, grasses and other plant byproducts—into a high-quality, clean fuel alternative to wood or coal. Soil scientist Goro Uehara also uses the charcoal as a soil enrichment additive. The more "well-done" the charcoal is carbonized, the better it is for plant growth, he says. Application of Antal’s technology has earned the university $200,000 in licensing revenue. Much more is expected. Licensees include start-up company Carbon Division Corp., charcoal manufacturer Kingsford Products and Pacific Carbon and Graphite Corp.

Antal is also exploring charcoal-powered carbon fuel cells. More efficient than hydrogen fuel cells, the carbon-based technology is of interest to the military, he says. Colleagues continue HNEI’s 25-year hydrogen research program, looking at solar-to-hydrogen conversion and renewable biological and biomass gasification technologies for hydrogen production and storage techniques including PEM fuel cells. Also, Michael Cooney explores production of biodiesel from yeast and microalgae; Bor Yann Liaw tests advanced batteries and electric vehicles; Scott Turn explores potential for local ethanol production; and Jian Yu develops biodegradable plastics from organic wastes. Researchers are also exploring methane hydrate found under the ocean floor as a potential source of natural gas.

Applying technology

The Center for Smart Building and Community Design translates new technologies into practical applications. Director and Associate Professor of Architecture Stephen Meder is helping the Montessori School of Maui construct a sustainable, green campus that blends new technology with ancient Hawaiian principles, works with the existing topography to preserve trees and other natural features, includes indigenous and functional plants for landscaping and uses photovoltaic and solar water heating units. The facility earned an environmental sustainability award from the National Association of Independent Schools’ Leading Edge Program. Closer to home, Meder’s helping create more sustainable and efficient marine laboratories.

Mānoa’s John A. Burns School of Medicine earned a Hawaiian Electric Company award for new institutional construction for incorporated energy-saving features such as use of cold seawater in air–conditioning systems at the Kakaʻako facility. (Sea Grant College Program’s Arlo Fast first demonstrated the feasibility of cooling with seawater in the early 1980s, using an old truck radiator and household box fan at a Keahole aquaculture lab.) In addition, light shelves on windows reduce the need for artificial lighting and motion sensors deactivate lights and air conditioning when rooms are not in use. Other Mānoa initiatives include a campus fleet based on alternative fuels and purchase of Energy Star appliances for residence halls. Buildings are being assessed against U.S. Green Building Council standards, and a campus bicycle plan designed a network of bike paths and stations. In the future, bio-diesel food kiosks will dot the campus, and more buildings will be cooled with chiller-loop renovations.

Natural solutions

Graduate student Leyla Cabugos proposes
use of native plants for growing, insulating
green roofs
Graduate student Leyla Cabugos proposes use of native plants for growing, insulating green roofs

Leyla Cabugos suggests an organic approach to reducing the need for air conditioning. The botany master’s candidate assessed native ground cover plants for their potential as insulating green roofs. She found akulikuli grew well in a layer of coconut fiber, cinder and compost. She hopes future studies will document green roofs’ abilities to lower building temperatures and reduce runoff in storm water systems.

As interim chancellor, Professor of Economics Denise Eby Konan joined colleagues across the nation in pledging to curb greenhouse gas production and achieve carbon neutrality. She calls student participation in "recycle mania" impressive. "To better understand our waste stream, students inventoried rubbish that was tossed into a dumpster, and then devised recycling efforts tailored to the waste generated on campus," she says. "Give people an opportunity to channel their heart-felt environmental intentions and watch for results," Nixon adds. "These projects allow them to translate that consciousness into real outcomes."

Comment on this story, email

More on Mānoa’s Council on Sustainability and the Sustainable Saunders project.

Paula Bender (AA ’91 Kapiʻolani, BA ’94 Mānoa) is a freelance writer in Honolulu


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