Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Hawai'i's most energy self-sufficient school: Ni'ihau

Tiny Ni'ihau School, one of the smallest public schools in the state, is now perhaps Hawai'i's only school that is entirely off the grid.

It is hooked up to a new 10.4 kilowatt photovoltaic power system.

(Photo: Niihau School buildings to left, solar array and battery building at right. Kiawe and tamarind forest all around. Photo courtesy Kaua'i County.)

Ni'ihau School, with 30 students from kindergarten through high school, has never been a power hog. For many years, it used no electric power at all. There is no islandwide power grid on the small, privately owned island off Kaua'i. When electricity was needed, it came from batteries, or someone fired up a fossil-fuel-powered generator.

That's the way it is in the hamlet of Pu'uwai, with its dirt streets and scattered wood-frame homes enclosed by rock walls—to keep the livestock out.

Horses are far more common than motor vehicles. And pigs, sheep and an array of other wildlife wander the countryside.

Only a couple of hundred people live here.

There are no phones, except for cell phones that residents can use to call relatives on Kaua'i. Those cell phones don't work in Pu'uwai, which is on the far side of the island from Kaua'i. Ni'ihau folks have to go miles from home to a high spot from which they can view Kaua'i in order to get a cell signal.

There's no running water, and folks collect the scant rain that falls on their roofs. When it's been dry a long time, they can resort to a well. Some have small solar systems to provide them with juice for lights and small electric appliances.

Residents move regularly back and forth to Kaua'i, and students switch occasionally between Ni'ihau School and one of the several public schools and charter schools on the west side of Kaua'i.

Niihau Ranch manager and island co-owner Bruce Robinson said the installation of the new solar system at the school was a community-wide effort, with the help of the county, the state Department of Education, Gay & Robinson, Niihau Helicopters, Niihau Ranch, Ron's Electric, Seattle-based DPK Inc, and U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development.

“This project shows that renewable energy self-sufficiency can be achieved in our DOE schools through the cooperative efforts of community, government and business,” Robinson said.

The new system will provide power for computers and other technology in the school building, and will provide the school with refrigeration for food in its cafeteria. Until now, the school could make only limited use of fresh produce, dairy products, and other food requiring cooling.

“The basic need for electricity at Ni'ihau Island School has been one of many challenges for the community,” said Bill Arakaki, the Department of Education's Kaua'i district chief, and a former principal at Ni'ihau School and Waimea High School.

A field of 80 Kyocera solar panels with peak production of 130 watts each is linked to a bank of 72 deep cycle marine batteries. Those and the associated electronics cost $207,000, which came from a $150,000 USDA grant, $32,000 from the county Energy Extension Service and $25,000 from the Department of Education. Niihau Ranch built the buildings, a stone wall windbreak and did other work.

A county press release said that Ron Sakoda of Ron's Electric and Charlie Cowden of Hanalei Solar provided training, and thanked for their help former Kaua'i DOE chief Daniel Hamada, Randall Higa of the department's safety and security division, Ronald Ho & Associates electrical engineering consultant Tim Higa, and county energy coordinator Glenn Sato.

© 2007 Jan W. TenBruggencate

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