It started in fall 2012 as a class project for a civil engineering course in sustainable infrastructure systems. A team of USC Viterbi School of Engineering students built computer models representing the water, energy and agriculture systems of Lanai, the Hawaiian island purchased by Oracle CEO Larry Ellison earlier that year.
The computer programs showed 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 island’s water system, power grid and farms. With this, they could see how changing parameters like power consumption, population size and a new solar panel installation affected the sustainability of the entire island.
Master’s students 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 conducted this spring 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, editor of the newspaper Lanai Today.
Then Maby surprised his students with a new development: He secured funds to send them to Lanai.
In March, four team members visited the island that for months had been the focus of their computer models and data-crunching exercises. Their theoretical, abstract research suddenly became practical and real. They were there for four days, seeing the systems they had modeled and meeting the people involved in the development of the small Pacific island.
“You can clearly see the linkages between all the different parts, and I think that’s very important that we have that experience,” 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 policymakers on the island.
Cyril Uboldi, director of engineering at Four Seasons Resorts in 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.
So what began as a theoretical class exercise became a valuable, real-world experience that not only enriched the education of USC Viterbi students but is also helping a small island community with sustainability.