By Nina Wu
The ads on the radio play over and over again. There's the kid touting Hawaii Common Core Standards, and how they align with college and workforce expectations. Another ad goes on about the "smarter balanced assessments" in math and English language arts to reach our "55 by 25" goal. We just found out how we did on that. But all I can think of, as most parents with kids in public school are probably thinking right now, is, what about the heat?
The 90-to 100-degree Fahrenheit heat and humidity brought on by El Nino has set record-setting temperatures in the Hawaiian isles this year. Students, teachers and staff are sweltering in stifling, hot classrooms as they're attempting to teach and learn. There's no relief in sight until the end of the year.
It didn't help that the first day of school was July 29, the height of summer.
Blame it on climate change.
The state DOE actually does. See the letter below.
Factors in building out air conditioning across the public school system
As the state's cooling tradewinds continue to decline and the heat index continues to rise due to climate change, HIDOE is challenged by the need to install air conditioning at all public schools. This involves more than installing AC units — there are budget and infrastructure hurdles to overcome. And we must approach it with an eye to sustainability so we aren't adding to the problem of escalating energy use.
The Hawaii Department of Education began deploying portable air-conditioners this week, but that's only a temporary solution, at best. The overall solution isn't so simple. The department says it will take $1.7 billion to cool the schools. The estimated figure, which seems quite high, includes the cost of upgrading infrastructure and installing central air conditioning in 256 schools in the state.
Portable air-conditioners are definitely not part of a long-term solution (and some say they aren't effective for a large classroom). With the hurdles of higher electricity costs that come with air-conditioning and issues of sustainability, a multi-pronged approach is necessary. Reflective roof coating, increased insulation and better building designs are contributing solutions. But solar technology should have been part of the solution, already.
The state DOE's fact sheet for cooling schools also blames old buildings and infrastructure as part of the challenge, but cites solar technology as part of the solution. Solar-powered ventilators make sense. So does solar photovoltaic air conditioning, which is being tested at a portable at Waianae High School. Kudos to students at Campbell High, who took the matter into their own hands and raised $19,000 for photovoltaic air-conditioning through a crowdfunding campaign called Fahrenheit 73. Another donated system is planned for Kalaheo High School. The department, however, is evaluating whether the high costs of the systems are justified.
In addition to the electrical upgrades needed to install air-conditioning, there are the costs of operating air-conditioning. The power bill at Pohakea Elementary School, for instance, more than doubled when AC was installed, according to the DOE, which currently spends more than $62 million a year on electricity, gas, water and sewage fees a year.
While Hawaii recently boasted of being one of the states with the highest concentrations of rooftop solar per capita, those solar panels, unfortunately, did not land fast enough on its public school rooftops. To date, approximately 46 schools, or roughly 18 percent of Hawaii's schools, have installed solar PV as a result of Act 96 in 2006. To its credit, the department's Ka Hei program launched in 2004 has a laudable goal — it aims to reduce energy costs through energy efficiency measures while bringing STEM lessons to the classroom. McKinley High School is the latest recipient of a 100 kw solar PV system financed through power purchase agreements.
But this all comes more than a decade too late. Hawaii lags behind other states in this no-brainer decision despite having the best potential out of all the states in the U.S. in terms of sunshine. There was this extensive study conducted by MK Think that cited "solar gain" as "the single most important contributor to interior temperature" in schools. Solar technology could also be the single most important solution to cooling our schools.
>> Hawaii ranks No. 1 in states where schools that could save money by going solar, according to a study by the Solar Energy Industries Association. Yet Hawaii ranks No. 20 in school solar PV capacity, behind Texas, Arizona, New Jersey and California. And we only have one school district, while other states have multiple districts to contend with.
>> While we've set a goal of 100 percent renewables by 2045, why haven't schools been a higher priority? Board of Education Policy 6710 sets a visionary goal of reducing the Department's reliance on fossil fuel-based energy by 90 percent by 2040. Long-term visions and goals are nice, but the reality is our students are suffering TODAY.
>> Schools most in need of air-conditioning should have been chosen for the solar PV projects first. Likewise, schools with solar PV systems should have been among the top candidates for air-conditioning as well as the ones with the hottest temperatures.
>> HECO should fast-track connections for public school solar PV systems.
>> Solar companies can step up and donate systems to schools. I've seen systems donated to non-profits, but let's make our public schools, which have been neglected far too long, a priority.
>> HECO's Sunpower for Schools program (in place since 1996) ended in July of this year, just when public schools were getting started. Under the program, schools received free, photovoltaic solar electric or solar lighting systems. They were small systems, like the 2 kw solar electric system installed at Waianae Intermediate school in December 2006, made possible through a three-way partnership between HECO, the DOE and community (HECO solicited donations to fund the systems). HECO replaced that program with Smart Power for Schools, which installs and demonstrates emerging technologies, such as battery banks for energy storage and management systems for energy monitoring and management tools. That's all well and good, except for the fact that the majority of our schools aren't outfitted with solar PV yet.
>> So far, I haven't heard NextEra, the $4.3 billion suitor from Florida seeking to acquire HECO, offer any promises or offers of contributions to Hawaii's public schools, specifically, in any way.
Here are some ideas of how schools across the U.S. have been able to integrate solar into their schools, whether to heat or cool their schools, with significant cost savings and a long-term hedge against rising electricity prices. Many were able to enter power purchase agreements with no upfront costs. The Berkeley Unified School District drew up a district-wide solar master plan and with a U.S. Department of Energy grant, even created a template for other school districts. So it's been done before. With the cost savings, some schools are even able to bring back arts and music programs that had been cut from the budget.
>> Solar parking arrays at Analy High School in Sebastopol, CA (Photo: SunPower).
>> Check out this 5,750 KW solar project in Plympton, Mass. that powers Plymouth Public Schools (Photo: Greg M. Cooper/ Borrego Solar).
>> The Scottsdale Unified School District in Scottsdale, Ariz. installed more than 2 MW of solar across four schools sites to lock in years of future energy. (Photo courtesy SolarCity). Wow, now that's a commitment to solar!