Big Wind is the central part of the Clean Energy Initiative rolled out by former Gov. Linda Lingle in 2008 and continued by current Gov. Neil Abercrombie. It would deliver a capacity of 400 megawatts of wind energy from Lanai and Molokai to Oahu by an undersea cable. It’s critical to our future but has become a magnet for activists.
The activists have leveled a litany of charges against the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism; the state Public Utilities Commission; Hawaiian Electric Co.; landowners; and wind developers. Despite dozens of meetings and discussions, they claim they haven’t been informed or consulted, comparing Big Wind to Soviet repression. We all know that these endless demands for information and meetings aren’t for a good reason, but only to perpetuate the potshots.
To get closer to the debate, see the PBS "Insights" program moderated by Dan Boylan on June 30 with Walter Ritte and Kanohowailuku Helm from Molokai and Robin Kaye and Alberta de Jetley from Lanai. It’s at tinyurl.com/bigwind.
It was 3 to 1. Helm said wind farms would make Molokai an "industrial wasteland" and "aren’t on the table." Ritte said wind belongs to the Hawaiian people. He called the people of Oahu "energy gluttons," even though he does have ideas about benefit packages that could make a difference for Molokai.
De Jetley alone supported Big Wind and urged the people of Lanai to see the opportunities it would bring. Kaye remained intransigent. He said we should spend the money putting photovoltaic systems on every home in Oahu and leave Lanai alone.
Claims of ownership in the wind don’t work in the 21st century, especially in a state that must shift to renewables, and quickly, to survive. The wind, like the air, is a public resource. No group, even an indigenous one, can "own" and deny it to others. These claims are not and cannot be in the public interest; they distract and obstruct implementation of the state’s clean-energy mandate.
The rhetoric suggested that one island can tell another island to take a hike, but that’s not sustainable when one island is dependent on taxes paid by the other. Aren’t we all one state; don’t these resources belong to all of us? Two islands, not even political subdivisions, openly turning their backs on state policy can only lead to constitutional crisis. Didn’t we work this out in 1865?
At the end of the day, we all need Big Wind to power our capital city and the gathering place of our economy. There are a million people living on Oahu. We can never power it with PV alone. Remember, PV only works in the daytime.
Right now there are 35 MW of PV installed statewide, a small fraction of the 1,200-MW daily peak demand for Oahu. Wind is a proven technology that can be installed relatively quickly. It’s reliable and runs day and night. It doesn’t foul up the environment with odors and emissions. And our islands have some of the best wind in the world. It would be a monumental waste not to use it.
Ritte has his own windmill and wants to return to subsistence living, which is his right. But he wants the many to support the few, and in return the few to withhold from the many. That ignores local values of kindness and sharing. At the same time, he does seem to understand that when the rhetoric is done the best thing he can do for the people of Molokai is to negotiate a good benefits package. This would be a matter of fairness, not because they "own" the wind.
However we got here, right now Molokai is seriously short on jobs, businesses, money and prospects. Ritte, Helm and the people on Molokai must know about the benefits that will come with Big Wind. It’s not just for a handful of jobs; it’s for better energy prices and community enhancements for everyone there, and for a new and promising day for Molokai. Really, what would you prefer?
Castle & Cooke faces big challenges over the next few years, and the people on Lanai should be worried about an uncertain future. The hotels there are losing money, and when Murdock can’t manage them anymore, others less interested in Lanai’s welfare will scale back, close or sell those hotels, leaving still fewer jobs. Many will have to move, leaving Kaye to enjoy a lonely victory.
Kaye calls the project divisive, but it is he who has made it thus. If he prevails, we could face far greater divisiveness and an economy out of Michener’s "South Pacific." The whipping boy might be Big Wind, but the disparities discussed on "Insights" are much more profound. We’ve had storm clouds for a while, but now somehow these things are out in the open and we’re at a turning point.
Last Thursday, Mililani Trask, another activist, made an ambitious geothermal proposal to the House and Senate energy committees. The good news is that geothermal will also use a cable to reach Oahu. The bad news could be that if the proposal picks up steam (pun), Big Wind could be eclipsed. Molokai and Lanai don’t have geothermal, so if they want benefit packages, they’d better act now.
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. Reach him at email@example.com.