POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, May 10, 2011
The Big Wind project is the keystone of our Clean Energy Initiative. Castle & Cooke was to build a 200-megawatt wind farm on Molokai, and First Wind was to build one on Lanai, both to be connected to Oahu by an undersea cable.
Castle & Cooke owns Lanai, so it could easily set aside a site. First Wind had been trying to secure a Molokai site since 2007. It made six offers to Singapore-based Molokai Ranch, which owns a third of Molokai, but all were rejected. Without a site, First Wind is now out of the running for the Molokai project.
On March 3, for lack of a deal between First Wind and Molokai Ranch, Gov. Neil Abercrombie threatened to condemn the Molokai site to move Big Wind ahead.
When Molokai Ranch reported that it was in fact negotiating with San Francisco-based Pattern Energy, the governor stepped back. But it's May and not a sure thing that Pattern will do any better than First Wind in dealing with Molokai Ranch or the Molokai community.
Satisfying the Friendly Island won't be easy. There's a kind of benefits package inflation going on. The cost of the Molokai package, as well as the cost of the site, will be passed along to ratepayers. The total will be huge, and could easily affect feasibility.
Rich benefits have been offered: reducing electricity rates by 50 percent; restoring Kaluakoi Hotel and Maunaloa Ranch; improving water utilities, roads and fire station facilities; funding scholarships and educational programs; and preservation and management of native lands.
But still no deal, and without a deal Big Wind is in trouble.
If we lose Big Wind, we lose the statewide grid. That will leave us with the disparity of having some islands, like Molokai, pay double what others pay, and where we accede that we are a state of islands rather than an island state.
A 200-megawatt wind farm needs something over 10,000 acres. Even First Wind's smaller 30-megawatt wind site in Kahuku is more than 500 acres. It would be hard to find an acceptable 10,000-acre site in Oahu, or even another 500-acre site. That's why Oahu needs to get its wind from the neighbor islands.
Eminent domain is in the federal and state constitutions because sometimes government needs land that landowners don't want to sell. Eminent domain allows the government to summarily take land for a public purpose and pay "just compensation" to the owner.
Although public purpose usually means government use, in 2005 the U.S. Supreme Court found that the city of New London, Conn., could take Suzette Kelo's land for a private project deemed to be in the public interest.
When Abercrombie threatened eminent domain against Molokai Ranch, he unleashed the genie, and the possibility of condemnation is now in play. He gave us a glimpse of a powerful solution to our energy security predicament, and we can't let it pass.
In our state of islands, land is scarce, and NIMBY is in every back yard. Large landowners want to hold on to their land in hopes of appreciation and because it's so difficult to find other parcels. So they refuse to sell.
Hawaii has traditionally been reluctant to exercise eminent domain, and big projects have suffered for it. This is a problem for both energy and other things, and we need to get over it. Big projects need big land, and until we can get that land, we'll be hampered in those projects.
The governor needs to get the Big Wind parties in a room and jawbone them into a deal. Failing that, he should do exactly what he threatened — yes, condemnation.
Take heart, governor. Be impatient about clean energy — you have the power. Make eminent domain imminent. Many people will support you in this, and a condemnation will assure progress on wind and other projects. Do it once and things will be easier going forward.
Incidentally, in June ThinkTech will present a program called "Status Report on Hawaii's Big Projects; What's Stuck in the Pipeline." Kelo is likely to be discussed. See thinktechhawaii.com.
Jay Fidell, a longtime business lawyer, founded ThinkTech Hawaii, a digital media company that reports on Hawaii's tech and energy sectors of the economy. He can be reached at email@example.com.