POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Nov 2, 2012
In agreement with other studies, the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization has determined that large-scale wind turbine projects on neighbor islands would have a positive economic effect. Obviously, though, that alone is not enough to satisfy concerns of Lanai and Molokai residents that the windmills could overwhelm their islands' charm. Proponents will need to evaluate and pledge worthwhile benefits to these communities.
Because of the state's dependence on oil and the highest electricity rates in the country, UHERO concluded that "renewable energy technologies like wind tend to be more cost-effective in Hawaii than anywhere in the U.S."
It assumes developers' success in building proposed wind energy projects on Lanai and Molokai generating a capacity of 400 megawatts, connected by undersea cable to an Oahu power plant.
The study is the latest of numerous optimistic assessments of the "Big Wind" plan. Most notably, the Oahu Wind and Integration Study completed two years ago by UH's Hawaii Natural Energy Institute found that it would account for 25 percent of renewable sources to produce 40 percent of the state's energy by 2030. The project, which would provide energy to Hawaiian Electric Co., has been estimated to cost more than $1 billion.
"We looked at various scenarios and found that the economic impact was positive," said Makena Coffman, a UHERO research fellow who joined consultant Paul Bernstein in conducting the study.
THE numbers that concern Friends of Lanai, a group opposing the project, are the planting of 80 to 200 towering windmills above 400 feet high — more than double the island's tallest and oldest trees — over 22,000 acres, or one-fourth of Lanai. And they envision HECO raising their electricity bills to pay for the undersea cable — although the electric company would be foolish not to provide significant cost reductions for Lanai and Molokai households.
Coffman said that use of wind-generated megawatts would serve as a hedge against "potentially rising and volatile fuel prices, including biofuel." Indeed, unstable world conditions and increasing oil demand from growing economies like China and India are huge incentives for Hawaii to move purposefully toward more self-sufficient energy production.
IN ADDITION, construction for "Big Wind" would create jobs, generating spending, reducing oil imports and cutting emissions, Coffman said. Such economic investment in the pursuit of cleaner, reliable alternatives is just what the nonpartisan, nonprofit Fuel Freedom Foundation is urging for the country, and it is the right move here in Hawaii, which enjoys optimal natural conditions for wind and solar energy exploration.
The U.S. Energy Department and the Hawaii State Energy Office conducted a series of public hearings in September for an unusual "programmatic environmental impact statement" about renewable-energy projects on different islands, including the proposed wind project proposals and undersea cable.
Clearly, though, controversy will continue as long as affected residents remain unconvinced the tradeoff is worthwhile. It will be incumbent upon advocates of these strategies to outline a strong array of givebacks that will truly benefit these communities.