RENEWABLE ENERGY:

Hawaii doubles down on 'Big Wind,' seeking long-term energy solution

Second in a two-part series. Click here for the first part.

Hawaii's plan to generate 400 megawatts of wind power on the islands of Molokai and Lanai, and then transmit the electricity via undersea cable to bustling Oahu, goes by many names.

The official name given by the state government is the "Hawaii Interisland Renewable Energy Program -- Wind." The state's dominant utility, Hawaiian Electric Co. Inc. (HECO), prefers the more neutral "Interisland Wind." Some critics call it the "Oahu Industrial Wind Power Plant on Lanai." Still others know it simply as "Big Wind."

Regardless of its title, however, the $3 billion project -- spearheaded by the state, HECO, Los Angeles real estate developer Castle & Cooke Inc., and Boston-based First Wind Holdings LLC -- faces huge challenges if it is to come to fruition by 2020, as proponents hope it will.

More than just another ambitious renewable energy project, Big Wind is being touted as the central piece of Hawaii's efforts to wean itself off of imported oil and natural gas, and usher in a new era of "green power" in one of the world's most ecologically sensitive places. That goal is buttressed by one of the nation's toughest renewable portfolio standards, requiring that 40 percent of the state's electricity come from renewables by 2030.

"If we don't do this Interisland Wind project, the chances of making it to 40 percent by 2030 are very challenging," said Peter Rosegg, a HECO spokesman in Honolulu. Once built, proponents say Big Wind's up to 174 turbines could provide as much as 14 percent of Hawaii's electricity, helping to offset imported fossil fuels that account for 90 percent of the islands' current generation.

Proponents also argue the new wind power and transmission cable will help protect Hawaii residents from rising oil prices by securing electricity costs at or below today's rates, which are currently the highest in the United States at 20.54 cents per kilowatt-hour (the national average is 9.83 cents per kilowatt-hour). Hawaii's high electricity costs are at least partly due to the fact that each of the state's islands has to generate its own electricity, creating huge economic inefficiencies.

At the same time, Hawaii's renewable energy resources are unmatched by any other state. The islands have enviable amounts of sun, wave, geothermal and biomass resources, but wind is considered the most economically viable right now. On Molokai and Lanai, in particular, the winds are considered world class.

"The wind on Molokai and Lanai is some of the best wind in the world," said Josh Strickler, project facilitator for the Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, during a congressional briefing. "You can get a roughly 40 percent capacity factor out of that, which means we can get more wind energy out of the wind there than we can in other places across the country."

Fairness factor

But not everyone in Hawaii is enthusiastic about Big Wind. The project faces stiff opposition from Lanai and Molokai residents, who argue the large wind farms will destroy their islands' remote character, breathtaking vistas, hunting grounds and sacred native Hawaiian sites. Opponents also say the two islands should not have to shoulder the project's most significant impacts while the clean energy is enjoyed by cosmopolitan Oahu, home to nearly 1 million people and the capital city and deep-draft port, Honolulu.

Under Big Wind's original proposal, Lanai and Molokai would each host between 50 and 90 turbines capable of generating 200 megawatts of electricity. A different firm would develop each island's wind farm, with First Wind spearheading the Molokai generation and Castle & Cooke financing the turbines on Lanai. The wind farms' combined 400 megawatts would then be routed to a transmission line that the state plans to build under the ocean to Oahu at a cost of between $800 million and $1 billion.

Robin Kaye, leader of the nonprofit group Friends of Lanai, which opposes the proposal, said the actual generation of the wind farms is only a fraction of their stated capacity and not worth covering between 13,000 and 22,000 acres of the 89,000-acre island.

"We find taking a quarter of this island for 10 percent of Oahu's electric needs to be an unfair," Kaye said, "and what we call 'pono' -- a Hawaiian word meaning 'righteous' -- this is a very non-pono project."

Lanai is very rural and remains mostly undeveloped. Most of its 3,500 residents live in Lanai City, while the rest of island consists of a former pineapple plantation (once the world's largest) and two Four Seasons resorts owned by Castle & Cooke. The firm, which owns 98 percent of the island, is vested in a variety of activities, including aviation services, transportation equipment, oil and gas holdings, and construction materials manufacturing.

Officials with Castle & Cooke did not respond to interview requests for this story.

Transforming Lanai?

While some look at the Lanai wind farm site and see barren gulches and an "arid wasteland," others see a landscape rich with native Hawaiian traditions and a prime hunting ground that supports many people who live off the land. The turbines, converter stations and access roads would irrevocably transform the nature of the northwest end of the island, critics say.

Henry Curtis, executive director of the nonprofit group Life of the Land, which advocates for sustainable land use policies in Hawaii, said infrastructure upgrades that would accompany the Lanai wind farm could open the door to further development.

"If you massively upgrade the harbor and put in a major highway to get from the harbor, which is on one side of the island, to where the wind would be on the other side of the island, then that allows the entire island to be developed," Curtis said.

Recognizing the significant impacts a large wind farm would have on Lanai, Castle & Cooke has offered a hefty community benefits package, including a promise to donate 1 percent of the wind farm's gross revenues to a local community fund. It also pledged to contribute $250,000 annually for the life of the project to preserve the island's Lanai Hale watershed, provide hunting and fishing access to the wind farm site, and extend hunting rights to other landholdings to offset what would be lost to turbines. Lastly, the firm said it would hire local employees, remove the turbines when the wind farm is no longer operational, and protect archaeological and cultural sites.

HECO, the utility partner, has also tried to sweeten the deal for Lanai residents by promising to reduce the island's electricity rates by 40 percent, bringing rates roughly in line with what Oahu customers pay, and working to make Lanai 100 percent powered by renewable energy by 2030. The company also pledged $50,000 a year to a local community fund and to upgrade the grid to enable more rooftop solar systems and solar-powered hot water heaters for local residents.

"Our main concern is the communities not feel that they are being railroaded or roughshod or forced to do something that's completely against their interests," Rosegg said.

Molokai changes

Meanwhile, the Big Wind farm component on Molokai that appeared at risk of falling through only weeks ago has found new life.

Since 2007, First Wind has tried to secure a site for its 200-megawatt wind farm. First Wind, which already operates two smaller wind farms on Maui and Oahu (Land Letter, Feb. 24), made six offers to buy land from Molokai Ranch, a Hong Kong-based company that owns about a third of the island, but all were rejected. Instead, Molokai Ranch has identified another wind farm developer, San Francisco-based Pattern Energy Group, as its preferred development partner.

Without a site, First Wind missed a crucial March 18 deadline with the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission to submit information about how much HECO will pay for the electricity generated by its wind farm. First Wind has requested an eight-month extension while it seeks an alternative site for the project on Maui.

"First Wind believes that the state should seriously consider making Maui an equally viable candidate as Molokai and Lanai," the company said in a statement. "First Wind is hopeful that Hawaii's elected officials and the Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism will be supportive of this approach."

Whether the PUC grants the extension remains to be seen, but HECO has advised against it and is charting a new course. According to an April 6 letter to the PUC, the utility is no longer considering First Wind's Molokai proposal, and has notified Castle & Cooke that it can proceed with up to 400 megawatts on Lanai.

Under state agreements establishing the Big Wind proposal, either of the two developers could absorb the other's share of the project if one of the islands' farms failed to be built. However, the terms sheet negotiated between HECO and Castle & Cooke allows a part of the project to be assigned to another developer on Molokai, subject to PUC approval, acceptable pricing and community benefits.

On April 8, Castle & Cooke announced a pending deal with Pattern Energy to construct part of a wind farm on Molokai if Pattern can obtain sufficient land from Molokai Ranch, a move that was welcomed by HECO.

"Diversifying the wind energy locations for this project has real benefits and is the right thing to do," said Robbie Alm, the utility's vice president in a statement. "We hope there is a way to meet the needs and concerns of the Molokai community so that this option makes sense to them as well."

Environmental, economic analyses

Though the Molokai wind farm is further behind in the process than Lanai, the setbacks do not affect the wind farms' environmental review process, which remains on a tight schedule. A programmatic environmental impact statement (PEIS) for Hawaii's wind energy prospects, funded by $2.9 million in American Reinvestment and Recovery Act money, must be completed by April 2012.

A first round of public comment on the PEIS ended March 1, drawing more than 170 comments. Many commenters, including U.S. EPA, questioned why the state considered only two alternatives -- a fully developed Big Wind project or no project at all. Some said the state should have evaluated other renewable energy resources to meet Oahu's demand, such as solar, wave or geothermal.

Allen Kam, the PEIS manager for the state's Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, said the decision to limit the scope of the analysis was consistent with other PEIS documents for energy projects. But, he added, "we want to be responsive to the public. We're seriously considering a different approach."

Kam would not expound on what those alternatives might be, but some groups have asked that as many as 11 different proposals be considered including development of ocean thermal energy conversion. Others have suggested that development of wave energy technologies could allow each of Hawaii's islands to be more self-sufficient and negate the need for expensive subsea transmission cables linking the islands' grids.

One of those critics is state Rep. Cynthia Thielen (R), who serves Oahu's 50th Congressional District. "Those kinds of alternatives haven't been explored," Thielen said. "There's just been a mad dash to build this wind farm on Lanai and the undersea cable."

Oahu residents are also beginning to take notice of legislation working its way through the state Legislature that could saddle Oahu ratepayers with the cost of the undersea cable. Companion bills in the House and Senate would establish a regulatory framework to allow a cable developer to act like a utility company and charge transmission fees to recover the cost of installation.

Current estimates put the cost of transmission at about 8 cents per kilowatt-hour. Added on top of the 11 to 13 cents per kilowatt-hour HECO has agreed to pay for the electricity generated by Castle & Cooke's wind farm, the total cost of the wind energy rises to between 19 and 21 cents per kilowatt-hour, comparable with current rates.

Thielen has likened the legislative proposal to "giving an open checkbook to the Public Utilities Commission."

But Rosegg said the legislation is critical because neither the state nor HECO can add a $1 billion risk to their financial books right now. HECO will retain the right to purchase the cable, but will first focus its resources on $300 million to $600 million of infrastructure upgrades to its existing transmission system to accept the intermittent wind energy.

While convincing the public of the importance of such expensive projects is an uphill struggle, Rosegg said he hopes skeptical residents, especially on Lanai and Molokai, will eventually agree Big Wind will secure electricity resources and prices not just for Oahu, but also for all the islands.

"Even though the energy is not for them to consume on their island, the analogy given around here is, 'We're all in the same canoe, we all have to paddle in the same direction,'" he said.

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