Ultra chic Shanna Treva saves money for UH
Image: Michal Jones-Smith

A UH--Mānoa building’s energy bill cut by $150,000-- thanks to one persistent grad student

Green / Saunders Hall at the University of Hawaii at Manoa has been home to multiple environmental projects, including a solar energy test bed. It’s hard to believe that until five years ago the building was doing more harm than good. Although one graduate student recognized the need to revamp the system’s excess use of nonrenewable resources, some professors suggested she move along.

When Shanah Trevenna proposed an idea to revamp Saunders Hall into a model of sustainability, the concept was greeted with opposition and mockery. She and eight fellow students formed Help Us Bridge (HUB), a team part of the Sustainable UH student organization. HUB developed the Sustainable Saunders initiative–a plan to reduce the building’s energy use by 30 percent per year, five times faster than the campus goal.

“When I first met with professors to discuss our intentions, I was told to run in the other direction,” Trevenna says. “A state agency leader pointed at his hair and said he attributed every grey strand to decades of trying to implement much needed change at UH…without success.”

After gathering support from like-minded folks in the community, HUB was able to begin itʻs mission. Local engineering firm Energy Industries examined Saunders Hall and discovered that nearly 90 percent of the building’s energy was used for lighting and air conditioning. “Apparently we were spending a lot of money to make people uncomfortable,” Trevenna says. HUB surveyed the hall’s occupants to find out that many of them complained the AC was too cold and the lights were too bright.

HUB removed half of the lighting from every fixture and gradually reduced the AC, cutting Saunders Hall’s annual energy bill by $150,000–all without using a dollar of the school’s funding.

Trevenna, a Canadian native, lacked such an eco-friendly past. After earning a mechanical engineering degree and landing a job at IBM, she was thrilled, until realizing her work was hurting the environment and running workers into the ground. With a desire to implement change, she left the corporate world and moved to Hawaii. “Grad school seemed the best place to explore, and I believed if I could become a professor, I could learn and teach about sustainability for the rest of my life,” she says.

While impressed by the Native Hawaiian influence and strong community bonds, Trevenna was disappointed with Hawaii’s lack of recycling and dependence on imported foods and fossil fuels. According to a 2010 survey by the US Department of Energy, Hawaii paid the highest energy prices in the country to burn oil for electricity, using only a small percentage of natural resources. Regardless of her frustration with the state’s resistance to change, Trevenna still wanted to help Hawaii work towards an ecocentric future. “There was so much potential that had barely been scratched and everything in me wanted to be part of the evolution,” she says.

After the shocking success with Sustainable Saunders, the small campus group became the front-page focus for many local news publications. “We were no longer a cute student group rallying for positive change,” says Trevenna. She was asked to be the speaker at events throughout the country, including Harvard’s Sustainability Institute.

Five years later, Sustainable UH-Manoa is still the backbone behind many water, waste and food projects throughout the UH system. The organization will be launching the first car-share program and water bottle filling station at UH–Manoa’s campus. Other plans include Sustainable Richardson, another initiative to transform the Richardson Law School into the “greenest law school in America.” Former group members have moved on to even more large-scale projects, including creating a recycling plan for the Honolulu Airport.

Confident in her vision of a progressive, more resourceful Hawaii, Trevenna continues to lead innovative environmental preservation techniques. In 2010, she was recognized by Hawaii Business Magazine as one of five individuals shaping the Islands for the next 50 years. Earlier this year, she released a book, Surfing Tsunamis of Change, about her journey toward a more sustainable Hawaii, and the American College Professional Association named her their 2011 National Sustainability Champion.

Trevenna is the co-founder of an internship program funded by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that helps guide students toward careers in the green work field, and has also developed a “Sustainability 101” curriculum currently taught on all 10 UH campuses. She continues to share and implement her green visions as a UH lecturer and Johnson Controls consultant.

“Like the Industrial Revolution, people will look back at this time and say everything changed,” she says. “The whole world knows and loves Hawaii, so as we become more fuel and food self-sufficient, the world will notice.”