With the launch of Oahu’s first commercially viable wind farm behind them, proponents of wind power will now try to replicate the feat on Lanai and Molokai, where larger-scale wind projects face far greater community opposition.
The first trickle of wind-generated electricity began flowing to the Hawaiian Electric Co. grid last week from 12 wind turbines at a 30-megawatt facility in Kahuku developed by Boston-based First Wind LLC. Gov. Neil Abercrombie, the First Wind CEO, the head of the Public Utilities Commission, Kahuku community leaders and even musician Jack Johnson gathered under a tent in the wind-swept foothills of the Koolau Mountains to celebrate the occasion.
Although the wind farm will provide just a small fraction of Oahu’s peak electricity demand, Abercrombie and others heralded the Kahuku project as an important step in Hawaii’s pursuit of energy independence.
To make wind a much bigger part of the electric grid in Hawaii, state officials and HECO are leading an effort to develop larger wind farms on Lanai and Molokai that would send electricity to Oahu via undersea cables. The proposal for 400 megawatts of generating capacity split between Lanai and Molokai, combined with wind and solar energy generated on Oahu could provide 25 percent of the island’s power needs, according to a recent study done by the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute, General Electric and HECO.
The Kahuku project enjoyed widespread community support, but the same is not the case on Lanai and Molokai. Several groups and individuals oppose the wind projects. Objections are varied, ranging from concerns about the impact on the natural beauty of the islands to the potential desecration of cultural sites to the loss of access to fishing and hunting areas from such massive projects. A common criticism among the opponents is that the project is principally for the benefit of Oahu at the expense of Lanai and Molokai.
"We get none of the power," said Robin Kaye, a member of a group called Friends of Lanai that opposes a wind farm plan by Castle & Cooke Inc., which owns most of the island. Kaye also said that there is a possibility that all 400 megawatts of energy production could end up on Lanai — not the 200 currently planned — if developers are not able to secure permission to use Molokai for a wind farm.
"That would take up about 22,000 acres of land, or about one-quarter of the island," he said. Kaye noted that when Castle & Cooke first proposed its wind project, it was for a 400-megawatt facility using 170 wind turbines. The project was later split into two pieces with Castle & Cooke committing to 200 megawatts of capacity on Lanai and First Wind pursuing 200 megawatts on Molokai.
The First Wind plan has stalled because of the company’s inability to obtain an agreement with land owner Molokai Ranch, said Paul Gaynor, First Wind chief executive officer.
More than 80 people submitted testimony to several legislative committees opposing a bill that would allow Hawaiian Electric Co. to pass along to ratepayers the cost of the proposed undersea cable.
Abercrombie said he hoped communities on various islands would consider the long-term benefits of an interisland wind project. It would be virtually impossible for Hawaii to hit its goal of generating 40 percent of its energy from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030 without some form of resource sharing, he said.
"If you actually went to a percentage distribution of resources, the Big Island probably has the most of us all and Oahu probably has the least to provide," Abercrombie said in an interview after the Kahuku dedication ceremony.
"So if we all work together and take advantage of what resources exist on each island and see it in an integrated way, then all of us will benefit. I want to get away from the idea that each island is on its own, and that some islands could benefit because they have certain resources they can use and other islands are stuck," he said.
Members of the Kahuku Community Association said they decided to support the First Wind project in part because the company, along with HECO, sought the involvement of the community in the planning process.
One of the requests made by the group was that the facility have a battery backup system so that homes in the area would not be subject to power fluctuations normally associated with wind-generated electricity, said Ralph Makaiau, president of the association. First Wind, at the request of the association, also agreed to move the closest wind turbine one-quarter of a mile from the nearest residential area instead of the 1,000 feet minimum required by zoning regulations, he said.
"We were prepared for this and other communities need to do as much homework," Makaiau added.
Association board member Kent Fonoimoana said the board worked to educate members of the Kahuku Community about the pros and cons of the wind project.
"We’d like to issue a challenge to other communities — I would personally. I’d like to challenge some of these other communities that they consider this, too."