Rob Parsons


Kula designer wants to put alternative power in your hands

by Rob Parsons

September 3 , 2009

photo: Rob Parsons

I met Erik Beale, after trading e-mails for weeks, at an Upcountry soiree for renewable energy enthusiasts. Cars lined Baldwin Avenue just below the memorial cemetery and Makawao town. The midday sun beat down as visitors strolled up the driveway to see an array of electric cars, and tents shading display materials and handouts.

Erik has been working on prototypes for pre-fabricated structures designed to accommodate solar photovoltaic panels. He recently launched MauiEcoBuilt (mauiecobuilt.com), offering modular buildings that can serve as a workshop, art studio, home office, storage shed, exercise room or garage. Like many in attendance at the "Cutting the Red Tape on Renewable Energy" event, he has taken matters into his own hands, designing a renewable energy solution that can be immediately implemented.

Blue-shirted Carden Academy students piled into the Mama's Fish House electric runabout vehicle, reminiscent of college kids cramming into VW Beetles years ago. After a polite reprimand from their teacher, they assembled to do a ceremonial cutting of red ribbon.

Behind them, a 30-foot tall Windspire turbine on a vertical axis spun forcefully in strong winds pushed in front of Tropical Storm Felicia. The recently installed, whisper quiet wind energy system was a primary reason for choosing the Banyan Tree House venue, one of many old plantation luna homes lining the curving roadway bearing the name of a century-ago sugar planter.

The outdoor gathering, organized by architect/entrepreneur Michael Angelo Leone of HIEV (Hawaii Electric Vehicles) also attracted those looking to invest in smart, green design. Matt Daniells, co-owner of Kaupakalua Road landmark Hanzawa Store in Haiku, said he's looking for ways to retrofit—and to offset the $6,000 monthly electric bill needed to run refrigeration equipment, gas pumps and lights.

Daniells, like Beale a champion board sailor, looked up at the spinning Windspire and said, "It's supposed to blow like this again tomorrow. Let's go sailing!"

You could say that Beale has been accustomed to harnessing natural energy for a long time. Born in France, he was a competitive skateboarder, ranked 6th in Europe at age 13. But at age 15 he began windsurfing, and started racing six years later.

In 1986 at the Canary Islands, Beale set a windsurfing world record of 35 knots. Two years later, on the canals of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in South France, he shattered that record, gaining the outright sailing mark at 40.48 knots.

Beale studied at the London School of Industrial Design, which provided his best opportunity to combine interests in architecture, furniture and racecar design and ergonomics. He acquired skills that allowed him to help design the windsurfing speed craft that earned him the title of world's fastest sailor.

After more than 20 years of custom home design, Beale is now turning his focus to modular kits and panel wall systems that are extremely efficient and can be constructed in as little as 2-3 days. His latest innovation is optimizing roof pitch and area to allow for solar PV panels on freestanding buildings, with a variety of applications and variations.

A week after the renewable energy gathering, I met him at his property on upper Omaopio Road, on the sunny lower slopes of Haleakala. A bright yellow one-room building glowed in the late afternoon sunshine. Twelve solar panels were mounted on one half of the roof, facing Maalaea Bay to the south. Beale grinned broadly as we walked over to the electric meter on his home next door. "We tested it today for the first time, and it was amazing to see the meter spinning backwards," he said.

He has already incorporated energy efficiency into his residence—with Energy Star rated appliances and lots of natural lighting—and requires a mere five kilowatt hours per day ($55 monthly). His new solar PV system generated 4.2 kwh in its first four hours of operation. Beale explained that net-metering customers may accrue more credits during summer months, when the sun's higher position in the sky produces more electricity (output is averaged for the entire year).

Surprisingly, his 12' by 16' yellow building was built—legally—without a building permit. With 192 square feet of floor space, it's just under the 200 sq. ft. limit that triggers a permit requirement. The building can't be used for living space, can't have plumbing and the electricity generated by its solar panels may not be used by the building itself. Instead, it's transmitted to the main dwelling.
Beale believes this design has great potential for an as-yet untapped market: an electric car "chargeport." He even envisions businesses doing parking lot installations, catering to customers moving away from vehicles that operate on fossil fuel.

Solar panel prices are down right now, but that could change as demand increases, bolstered by favorable incentives. Those investing in solar PV can benefit from federal and state tax credits of 50 and 30 percent, respectively. Further, they are eligible to amortize half of the depreciation in the first year.

As a builder, Beale understands that not all existing roofs are adapted for solar panel installations, especially those that are older, tiled or have unfavorable pitch angles. His designs, with metal roofing made here in Hawaii, work well with the extruded aluminum rack mounts for the panels. As we sat in his kitchen, overlooking the Central Valley and West Maui Mountains, he showed me a just-sketched design with overhanging roof mounts that could accommodate up to 70 panels.

He went through a series of questions with County representatives before constructing his prototype yellow building, and now has the model and concept ready to sell. With his interest in being on the cutting edge of new modular designs, he says eventually it makes sense to train sub-contractors to install his kits. He cites the three main benefits of his buildings as quality of materials (and minimum waste), speed of assembly and reasonable cost.

Beale will be one of the exhibitors at the upcoming Maui County Energy Expo 2009, to be held September 10-11 at the Grand Wailea Resort & Spa. In addition to panel discussions and presentations, the expo will offer recommendations on renewable energy implementation by members of five working groups of the Maui County Energy Alliance.

Beale's enthusiasm seems to generate a happily contagious energy of its own. It's easily reflected in the Kennedy-esque quote on one of his Web pages: "Ask not what this planet can do for you, rather, ask what you can do for this planet."