Triathlete Olwen Huxley swims, rides and runs toward sustainability

How far would you go to ensure a sustainable future? For activist Olwen Huxley, who works out of the University of Hawai’i-Ma-noa’s Sea Grant Program, the answer is simple: 2.4 miles in the water, 112 miles on bike and 26.2 miles by foot. Already a seasoned athlete, Huxley will be taking part in the Ford Ironman World Championship in Kona Oct. 13 in the name of sustainability. So far she’s raised $2,200 in pledges, which will go toward an energy efficiency fund for changes that need to be made on the UH-Manoa campus.

So tell me about the sponsorship. What’s this all about?

When I finish the race, which I have to do now (laughs)–this is all contingent on me actually finishing–everybody will send me the checks that will be deposited maybe at the UH foundation or some other account. And they can take a tax deduction on that. And then we will award that funding either to individuals or to the departments who wanted to do some of the smaller things that need to get done on campus.

What are some of the smaller things that need to get done campus, as far as sustainability goes?

A lot of it would be light bulb replacement. A compact fluorescent light bulb uses about 25 percent of the energy of an incandescent light bulb. This campus has about a $20 million-a-year electricity bill. And we at the moment have no control over that bill. We need to do some really big and expensive improvements to many of our buildings, particularly air conditioning. But then there are a lot of small projects that also should get funded that involve student participation and staff participation–the big stuff will get done by companies. But it seems like the core of any successful campus energy project has been getting everybody involved. So this funding will be used for the getting-people-involved type stuff.

How do you get college kids, who are at times more worried about their next exam than anything, to get interested in sustainability?

Don’t ask them at exam time. (Laughs) There are a lot of college students here who are very concerned about what kind of world they are going to be graduating into. People who come into university are generally well educated enough and concerned enough about the bigger world.

There’s a lot of student interest. We really need to start thinking about the ways students can actually do something. Because it’s nice to sit around and talk about sustainability, but it’s sort of tricky actually implementing it. And a lot of it comes down to money. Where are we going to get the money to buy the stuff that’s going to make us energy efficient: energy efficient light bulbs, computers? You can get energy efficient computers, but you just have to know they exist and actually ask for them.

So whose idea was it for you to run the Ironman for sustainability?

Lots of people doing races end up doing fundraising for whatever. And it usually–for a variety of reasons–ends up being for diseases. You know, leukemia, lymphoma, diabetes, different types of cancers, all that kind of stuff. I did something like that a few years ago and it was actually so easy to raise the money. I sent an e-mail to a bunch of my friends and said, ‘Hey I’m doing this swim to raise money for an AIDS clinic. Who wants to give me some money?’ And people respond immediately to that kind of thing. So coming into Ironman–this is the world championship–it’s a huge deal. But individual sports are a pretty selfish occupation. It’s basically all about you. And you spend a lot of time training and worrying about yourself–how well am I going to do and what people are going to think about me, that kind of thing. So as well as just an opportunity to do good, it’s an opportunity to make an individual sport more about the greater community than just, ‘Hey, I want to break my personal record.’ And energy efficiency is something I care about, so it’s kind of a logical decision.

How did you get so active in the sustainability movement?

I’ve always been interested in it. So when I moved here and started working at the University of Hawai’i, [I realized] we’re kind of like a microcosm of what’s going on nationally. We have an out-of-control energy bill that we’re paying for with student tuition dollars, which we never thought would ever happen. That means we’re not paying for student programs that we would normally be paying for. How can we solve this problem before this energy bill starts to eat us alive? And this isn’t just a policy issue. A lot of it is how can we stop it. What can we do? What kind of investments do we need to make across campuses to ensure that when the cost of electricity goes up again, which is sort of inevitable, we would be immune to that?

And on the one hand, we can do a lot of things like install solar panels and generate some of our own electricity. But energy efficiency is where you get the best bang for the buck. You figure out ways to use less air conditioning. You use more energy-efficient light bulbs. You design buildings so that they are naturally ventilated. You do a better job of insulating the roofs so that you don’t bake the top floor of the building and have to run the air conditioning system harder just to keep the people on the top floor happy while everyone else downstairs freezes to death, which is a big problem in a lot of our buildings.

Sounds like a big fix.

The problem is really daunting. $20 million is a lot of money. And I look at this $2,200 pot of money that I’ve raised and that’s less than one day of our energy bill. But you’ve got to start somewhere. And you replace one light bulb, that’s money you’re going to be saving for five years–the life of the light bulb. And we figured if we change all the light bulbs on campus, we could save $50,000 to $100,00 a year. That’s a problem that’s gone away forever, and an opportunity for some of the students to get involved. Tracking where these light bulbs are and getting them replaced is certainly a place where we can start.

All the problems out there seem so huge but you really do just have to start somewhere, don’t you?

I spent a lot of time kind of trying to decide whether I was going to do this or not, and finally I was like, (whispers) fuck it. I’m going to do it and we’ll see how it goes. And it seems to be working out okay so far.