Students Capture Sunpower

What can engineering do to help protect our natural resources and create a better environment for everyone? Two University of Hawaii students, Davin Sasaki and Kaufana Valitta, accomplished this by helping Hawaii's oldest school use basic engineering technology to create energy from one of the oldest sources, the sun.

They designed a photovoltaic (PV) system, a system that converts the energy from sunlight into electricity, for Lahainaluna High School on Maui through the "Sun Power for Schools" program. This program is a partnership between Hawaiian Electric Company (HECO), Hawaii Electric Light Company (HELCO), Maui Electric Company (MECO), their customers and the State of Hawaii's Department of Education.

In an effort to promote the study and use of renewable energy - energy renewed or replenished through natural forces such as wind and the sun - the "Sun Power for Schools" program provides participating schools with a photovoltaic system. What is a photovoltaic system? According to the U.S. Department of Energy, "photo" comes from "phos," the Greek word for light, while "volt" is derived from Alessandro Volta (1745-1827), a pioneer in the study of electricity.

Combining the two words together gives us "photovoltaics," or "light-electricity." We already see PV systems commonly used - from solar-powered calculators and watches to emergency telephones on the highway.

These systems aren't cheap, though. The cost of the 2-kilowatt rooftop systems installed at Oahu schools have run over $20,000 each. The tab for the smaller PV system at Lahainaluna will run about $4,000. The electric companies monitor the systems and the data is collected and posted on the HECO website ( In addition, classroom teachers are provided educational materials that provide students with information and techniques for evaluating the collected data.

The PV system designed by Sasaki and Valitta power an outdoor light fixture at the girl's dormitory at Lahainaluna High School. "We designed a system from scratch," Sasaki said. "We listed a set of requirements that the school needed, then decided what we should include in the system, and researched where we could get the required elements."

Sasaki and Valitta received guidance from HECO engineer Art Seki. "We are pleased with the work effort provided by the UH College of Engineering students in the design of the 'Sun Power for Schools' photovoltaic area lighting system at Lahainaluna High School," Seki said. "We hope the students have gained some knowledge and experience in what it takes to design and engineer a real-world project"

This project was just part of the course work for Professor Rahul Chattergy electrical engineering class. "Professor Chattergy always exposes us to real world situations and bases his whole teaching approach to this philosophy," Sasaki said.

Chattergy believes, " HECO engineers have provided our students with the opportunity to participate in real-life, cutting-edge design projects such as in renewable energy. We appreciate their concern for our students and the time they have put in."

The young women of Lahainaluna High School feel much safer at night, thanks to the efforts of two engineering students from UH. "This is a great example of sound engineering providing a better environment for all of us," Sasaki said.


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