Breaking Kaua’i’s oil habit main topic for KCC instructor

While working on cars as a student at Waimea High School in the mid-1980s, Gregg Matsuo knew of only one way to power vehicles: oil.

In 2003, Matsuo, now a 33-year-old instructor in industrial technology at the Kaua’i Community College, can see the day when vehicles powered by electricity may become a common site in Hawai’i and in the world.

That day may become a reality with depleting oil reserves, Matsuo said.

In his job, Matsuo likes to think he is preparing a new generation of Kauaians for the future of Hawai’i, one which depends more on alternate energy and less on oil.

In his classes, he explains the theories of alternate energy sources like photovoltaic, solar, wind and biomass, and their importance.

Armed with such knowledge, students can take courses elsewhere to become engineers or technicians who can promote the usefulness of alternate energy technologies through, for instance, the installation of (alternate energy) systems that will benefit communities, Matsuo said.

Hawai’i would be the best place for the development of an array of alternate energy technologies, according to Web site material.

Because of its isolation, Hawai’i has no way of tapping into utility grids with other states, has the highest energy prices and the greatest need for alternate energy, according to a state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism report.

The study also noted other states already pursue alternate energy options even though they have better access than Hawai’i to less expensive but more abundant fossil fuels like coal and natural gas, the study said.

“Energy is such a hot topic,” said Matsuo, whose job may be the only one of its kind in the community college system of the University of Hawai’i.

Only Maui Community College offers a sustainable technology program, which has been in existence for five years, he said.

The industrial technology program at KCC is in its second year and attempts are being to define it and to make it more viable to students, Matsuo said. He currently teaches classes in electricity.

The first classes in energy technology will be offered in the semester that starts this week, Matsuo said.

Matsuo said he loves his job.

“The field allows creativity in the sense that we have the scientific and engineering foundation to build what we imagine,” he said.

Matsuo said he would like to see development of large-scale projects to explain how hydrogen can be used as fuel to power vehicles and to provide power for homes.

As part of classroom aid, he uses small-scale fuel cells research project, which can make electricity using hydrogen and oxygen.

In the project, small photovoltaic cells capture the sun’s power, and the power is used to “electrolyze” water, Matsuo said.

Once hydrogen and oxygen atoms are separated, hydrogen and oxygen are stored in tubes. When the need for electricity arises, the fuel cells can recombine the hydrogen and oxygen to make electricity, Matsuo said.

Matsuo said he has taken a personal interest in the project because he wants to find out more about the characteristics of fuel cells, their durability and their cost-efficiency.

The KCC instructor also helped with the development of a solar car port at the college that is intended to demonstrate the technology behind photovoltaic systems to create electricity.

With the will, creativity and funds, larger-scale projects can be built, allowing any home or business, for instance, to become independent of municipal utility systems.

Such a system might work at the Kaua’i Community College, but “it would take acres of photovoltaic cells to make a significant reduction in the total consumption of electricity by the college,” he said.

Systems like the one Matsuo talked about already are in operation at the Parker Ranch and the Mauna Lani Hotel on the Big Island.

Matsuo said he also would like to see at the college the development of a large-scale, solar hydrogen project that can make electricity.

If it is possible, Matsuo said he also would like to see the continued use of machinery on Kaua’i that uses bagasse to make electricity.

“Bagasse is almost like a free energy source on the island,” Matsuo said. And a ready supply is available because Gay & Robinson is still harvesting high yields of cane in West Kaua’i.

Hawaii’s most recognizable alternate sources of energy are wind, solar, biomass, hydroelectric, ocean thermal energy conversion and wave energy.

A combination of most of those technologies will have to be used for Hawai’i to become energy self-sufficient, Matsuo said.

Matsuo is a 1987 graduate of Waimea High School. After graduating, he went to O’ahu to paint cars, then went to Los Angeles and built homes with his cousin and worked part time with United Parcel Service.

He attended California State University of Los Angeles, where he received a four-year degree in industrial studies in 1999.

He also worked for Southern California Edison , a utility that generates power in southern California, testing electrical batteries and batteries.

After Edison, Matsuo worked for a small company in southern California that developed small fuel cells. While teaching at KCC, he is pursuing an advance degree in industrial studies at the California college.

Matsuo said his mentor is Dr. James Ettaro, who teaches at the California college and is a specialist in using hydrogen as a fuel.

Matsuo said it was his experience working with cars in high school that got him interested in his current career.

“I never thought about using alternate energy when I worked on cars, but when I was with Edison, I found out what electrically-powered car can do over a gas-powered car,” Matsuo said.

Matsuo said a battery-powered car he might be able to build one day could hold its own against a gas-powered muscle car at the Mana race track.

A 200-horsepower electric car would be quicker and would not pollute the environment, he said.

“This alternative energy thing has changed the way I think about life. I am more conscious now about using renewable energy sources and conserving,” Matsuo said. “This is what I want my students to see.”

Staff writer Lester Chang can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 225) and mailto:lchang@pulitzer.net

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