Skip to main content

CU students across disciplines help design Hawaii's first eco-friendly community

A planned community with plug-in hybrid cars, an electricity-saving microgrid and many other green features will soon sprout up on the Big Island of Hawaii, thanks to a group of Cornell students and faculty who have spent a year designing it.

The 13 students are members of CU Green, a group that links academia with industry. They are assisting developers in creating Palamanui, a 725-acre cutting-edge sustainable community on the Big Island.

CU Green was started last summer by mechanical and aerospace engineering assistant professor Max Zhang, who leads the project. Students from such varied disciplines as mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, earth sciences, architecture, landscape architecture, urban planning and business are designing Palamanui around developer specifications that include a large residential sector, town center, business park and hotel.

"This is a real development, and people are going to live in these homes," Zhang said. "It's not a showcase, so that's the most exciting part of it."

On May 28, the group will travel to Hawaii to present phase I of their designs and recommendations to the developers, Palamanui LLC, a partnership between financier Charles Schwab, Hunt Development Group and developer Guy Lam.

Martha Bohm, a visiting lecturer in architecture and project adviser, said she was especially impressed with the interdisciplinary nature of the work.

"It's very important to the architecture profession to be able to work with structural engineers and lighting designers," said Bohm, who teaches a course in environmental systems.

Christina St. John, one of Bohm's students and a third-year architecture major, worked with mechanical engineering major Vinay Badami '08 to create models of two proposed home designs, complete with window choice and lighting structure.

"We were able to generate a wider range of solutions for the home that were much more insightful than if either of us had tried to tackle this on our own," Badami said.

St. John designed a passive cooling system for the homes to eliminate the need for air conditioning. Using climate-specific data, she created a schematic house design using cross ventilation.

Students on the engineering side have faced challenges unique to the island, such as the high cost of electricity. In Hawaii, electricity costs about 30 cents per kilowatt hour, compared with 12 to 14 cents in the continental United States. Hawaii's transmission lines are often overloaded or near capacity, explained professor of electrical and computer engineering Robert Thomas, also a project adviser.

Two of his electrical engineering master's students, Bjarni Jonsson and Chimaobi Onwuchekwa, are recommending that the developers build an electricity microgrid to serve the community exclusively. Onwuchekwa has concentrated on the microgrid design, while Jonsson has worked on designs for plug-in hybrid vehicles for the community. Batteries for the vehicles, when not in use, could be used to store energy for the microgrid.

Such a small distribution system would open room for large amounts of such alternative energy sources as photovoltaics and wind energy, to be managed within the community, Thomas explained.

"I think the era of demanding as much electricity as you want and getting it is going to end," Thomas said. "If we don't want prices to go higher, we need to be doing things more efficiently, and doing them better." This, he said, will include the prototypes designed into Palamanui, such as smaller generating sources, and more wind and photovoltaic sources.

Media Contact

Media Relations Office