S is for Savvy Sustainability

Sustainability may be a tough climb, but Eric Knutzen is determined to get it done. As head of a new sustainable living institute at KCC, Ho'ouluwehi, he's taking bold and visionary steps to make it happen. Coco Zickos photo


Eric Knutzen is showing bold and visionary leadership as head of a new sustainable living institute at KCC

Environmental consultant Eric Knutzen knows that living sustainably benefits the entire community.

“It’s not just leveraging everything you can do just for this generation,” he says. “It actually doesn’t burden future generations.”

The environmentally savvy Knutzen recently joined forces with Kaua’i Community College to serve as executive director of Ho’ouluwehi, The Sustainable Living Institute of Kaua’i.

The program is helping the campus become more sustainably focused and incorporates environmental standards into the classroom, such as providing opportunities for culinary students to recycle cooking oil.

Ho’ouluwehi encompasses four focus areas: producing food sustainably, providing renewable energy alternatives, creating affordable housing and improving waste elimination.

One of Knutzen’s many successes is acquiring a $30,000 grant to install a photovoltaic system at the KCC Aquaponics facility – one of the institute’s sustainability classrooms.

“Eric is a visionary who possesses some amazing leadership qualities,” says Aquaculture/Aquaponics Program coordinator and instructor Bernie Tsao. “He is clear about his goals, objectives and commitments. He is determined to achieve them. His positive attitude and passion are contagious. He is an excellent facilitator, well-organized and very methodical.”

In conjunction with Ho’ouluwehi, Knutzen also is using his expertise to join forces with the county in developing a new affordable housing project in Ka’apuni. The project will assimilate sustainable living practices such as aquaponics and agriculture on land located near Kapa’a Middle School. Even the homes will be fashioned in an environmental manner using container-based models equipped with proper ventilation and water systems.

“The containers are already here,” says Knutzen of the many 8-by-40-foot containers lying dormant at Nawiliwili Harbor. “We’re shipping more than 92 percent of everything we have, and so we’ve got all these empty containers being shipped off and it costs a lot of money to ship them back. This way we can just use them and keep them.”

Growing food is a part of Knutzen’s sustainable living solution. Coco Zickos photos

Not only does it make economic sense, container homes are becoming the fashionable way to live.

“It would bring to fruition all of the sustainable concepts that we’ve been talking about, things we’ve been saying we have to do and have been wanting to do for a long time. This would actually put them on the ground in a very real way,” says Kaua’i County special assistant to the housing director, Imai Aiu, who is collaborating with Knutzen on the project.

Though price points have not yet been set, the units are expected to be priced 20 to 25 percent less than conventional housing and will be constructed by KCC carpentry students.

A total of 10 duplex units outfitted with photovoltaic systems are slated to be engineered within the next few years with the first container-to-conventional-home prototype to be established on KCC’s campus.

“We need to find alternatives,” says Aiu, who (full disclosure) is married to MidWeek Kaua’i‘s Amanda Gregg, regarding housing. “I hope this becomes a prototype for sustainable living and we start moving into a much broader acceptance of it in everyday practice.”

Not only will residents be able to grow their own food on-site, they will have the ability to market it as well.

“The beauty is the tenants are going to benefit from good living, lower-cost living, through to food and revenue potential,” says Knutzen, who notes that this project will be the first of its kind on the island.

Knutzen plans to help harvest papaya at the proposed sustainable living community

He admits he is no stranger to environmental living. Knutzen owns a renewable energy business, Green Energy Hawai’i, which is in the process of implementing a biomass energy project on a 64-acre parcel of land near Koloa. Albezia and other invasive trees are currently being cleared from the area, and Department of Land and Natural Resource-approved forest trees are to be planted in their place. Not only will the trees be utilized in a way in which they are easily regenerated, the emissions released in order to generate electricity will be significantly lower than those at Port Allen.

The project is estimated to save between $5.5 million and $20 million per year for Kaua’i residents during a 20-year time span, and between $70 and $90 per household per year.

Before Knutzen felt a “polar push” to work in the environmental industry, the Colorado native owned a global consulting firm that he developed while living in Sweden, which helped entrepreneurs become more successful. After attending San Diego State University, he studied as an exchange student at Uppsala University in Sweden and ultimately achieved a degree in finance.

“It was so incredible,” says Knutzen, who is of Swedish-Norwegian descent, of the experience.

He ended up living in Sweden for 16 years and speaks the language fluently.

When his father, Ernie, a retired United Airlines pilot and North Shore resident, was diagnosed with cancer, however, Knutzen sold his consulting company, Knutzen Schwartz Group, and moved to the island in 2002.

Knutzen on the KCC campus

Shortly thereafter, at the suggestion of community members, he was recruited as the county’s deputy director of finance by the late Mayor Brian Baptiste.

“Suddenly I found myself working in public service,” says Knutzen of the sudden shift in career gears.

He was considered a complete foreigner in his new role.

“I have a slight accent still, but I had a radical one then because I had just switched from total Swedish to English,” he says. “It took me awhile to get back into the groove. It was really rough, but I really liked it. You’re helping everyone. When you’re working for the county, you’ve actually got the capacity to help everyone out.”

Benefiting others is a practice Knutzen continues to carry out in his new role at KCC.

“Within the short time that I’ve interacted with him, my experience with Eric is that he is a team player well-networked within the local community – responsible, kind and humble,” says Tsao.

When Knutzen isn’t working, he considers himself an “exercise freak,” running “really, really fast” every morning and lifting weights, spinning or swimming in the evening. He also performs a private mini-triathlon every weekend.

Married and the father of adult children (whose names he does not wish to disclose), Knutzen also enjoys cooking, especially Mexican fajitas and omelets.

It is obvious that Knutzen is full of life and energy, and that he is determined to create a more sustainable island community for the benefit of everyone.

Visit www.hoouluwehi.blogspot.com for more information.