Investigation finds DOE wasted millions on solar-powered AC systems

An HNN investigation finds the Department of Education spent money on solar-equipment that's not being used.
Published: Jun. 29, 2023 at 6:57 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A Hawaii News Now investigation has found that the state Department of Education wasted millions of dollars on solar-powered air conditioning systems that either had to be disconnected or aren’t doing an adequate job of cooling classrooms.

During the past six years, the DOE has installed solar-powered AC systems in 880 classrooms at a cost of $122 million — or more than $138,000 per classroom.

The problem: Many had to be disconnected from the PV systems and those that weren’t disconnected only work half the day, teachers said.

“Shortly after they were installed, some of them started to break down — they just stopped working. And at first, no one really knew what the problem was,” said Jodi Kunimitsu, a Maui High School teacher.

“It was fixed by just disconnecting it from the solar and just using the regular (grid).”

But the DOE said that only 10% of the solar-powered ACs have been disconnected.

“My guys tell me about 90% of the systems are operable. They’re working,” said Randall Tanaka, assistant superintendent for the DOE’s Office of Facilities and Operations.

But a source within the DOE said that the ACs that are still connected to the PV systems are designed to work for less than five hours day, leaving many students in hot classrooms.

The DOE concedes that the solar powered ACs only work half the day.

“We got schooled on that, right, because classrooms operate more than four and a half hours,” said Tanaka.

“But that’s how the system was designed.”

Back in 2017, the DOE chose to install AC systems powered by solar because many of the schools didn’t have enough electrical capacity to run the units and keep the lights on at the same time.

But since then, the DOE has installed thousands of LED lights and energy-efficient fixtures — which freed up enough electricity to run the schools’ air conditioning systems.

Critics said the money wasted on the solar-powered ACS could have gone to better use in building new facilities or toward teachers’ salaries.

Campbell High School teacher and former Hawaii State Teachers Association president Corey Rosenlee said he warned the DOE back in 2017 not to invest in costly solar-powered AC systems.

Compared to a solar-powered AC system’s $138,000 per classroom price tag, Rosenlee said a grid-connected AC system can cost as little at $2,000 per classroom.

“It’s frustrating, I see it as an opportunity lost,” said Rosenlee.