Logo: University of Southern California

Green Technology in Paradise

USC Viterbi students assist the sustainability project on Lanai
By: Katie McKissick
July 10, 2013 —

It started in fall 2012 as a class project for Civil Engineering 515: Sustainable Infrastructure Systems. A team of USC Viterbi students built computer models representing the water, energy, and agriculture systems of Lanai, the Hawaiian Island purchased by Oracle CEO Larry Ellison in June 2012.

Kevin Cornelis, Lake Casco, Ruben Van Caelenberg, and Caitlin Ahearn on Lanai 

The computer programs show how the combination of solar cells, water treatment plants, power stations and other infrastructure components work together to support the needs of the island and its residents.

Essentially, the students built a computerized version of the island and created programs that simulate the water system, power grid, and farms of the island. With this, they can see how changing parameters like power consumption, population size, and a new solar panel installation affect the sustainability of the whole island system.

Solar field on Lanai. Photo by Caitlin Ahearn

Master’s students in the Green Technologies program Kevin Cornelis, Ruben Van Caelenberg, Caitlin Ahearn, Lake Casco and Mukunth Natarajan were on that team and continued their work modeling the infrastructure of Lanai as part of formal directed research in spring 2013 under the guidance of USC Viterbi Professor Edward Maby.

As their project grew, team members increasingly interacted by phone and email with stakeholders on the island, such as Alberta de Jetley, the editor of local newspaper Lanai Today.

Then Professor Maby surprised his students with a new development: he secured funds to send them to Lanai.

This March, four team members visited the island that for months had been the focus of their computer models and data-crunching exercises. The theoretical, abstract research suddenly became practical and real. They were there for four days, seeing the systems they had modeled, meeting the people involved in the development of this small Pacific island.

Four Seasons Resort
Four Seasons Resort, Lanai. Photo by Caitlin Ahearn 

“You can clearly see the linkages between all the different parts, and I think that’s very important that we have that experience,” team member Van Caelenberg said.

Cornelis said visiting Lanai made him realize “that sustainability is much more than just the energy part; that’s it much more interconnected. You can’t focus on one part and neglect all the rest. You really have to have a holistic approach if you want to do a project like this.”

The USC Viterbi Green Technology team submitted its report to policy makers on the island.

Cyril Uboldi, director of engineering at Four Seasons Resorts, Lanai reviewed the report and was impressed with the level of detail. He thinks it will be a useful tool to show what can be done to increase the sustainability of the island.

What began as a theoretical class exercise became a valuable, real-world experience that not only enriched the education of USC Viterbi Green Technology students but is also helping a small island community with sustainability.