LANAI CITY – A massive wind farm proposed for Lanai has been anticipated as a major potential source of green power for Honolulu, but it remains a controversial project on the Pineapple Isle.
Castle & Cooke Resorts has proposed to erect as many as 200 wind turbines on 12,800 acres on the remote northwestern end of the island and lay an undersea cable that would send the power to Oahu. While some support a project that could be a revenue-generator for the island’s biggest employer, many express deep concerns, fearing it could cut off access to an important state hunting ground, have a major impact on an area rich in cultural and archaeological sites and detract from the rugged area’s sweeping views.
While Castle & Cooke has stressed that it won’t restrict access, many Lanai residents are not convinced, saying they believed that the company would change its mind once the windmills were up.
Many also question why they should support a project expected to generate only 20 to 30 permanent jobs, when it is not planned to supply any power to Lanai, where residents pay the highest electricity bills in the state.
“The windmills are supposed to be sustainable – for whom? All the power will be piped to Honolulu,” said Lanai City resident Joelle Aoki. “The people of Honolulu have said, ‘We don’t want these windmills here.’ So why do we have to have them on Lanai?”
“The community is really torn,” said Stephen Ferguson, owner of Lanai City restaurant Canoes Lanai. “They don’t see much of a benefit, and the loss of access to the land and hunting is more problematic in their eyes.”
County Council Member Sol Kaho’ohalahala said in an e-mailed statement that the island needed to move toward self-sufficiency and sustainability but questioned whether Lanai residents should be subjected to a massive project that would put profits and the energy needs of Oahu ahead of the needs and concerns of the local community.
“It is no longer appropriate to disregard our existence, our sense of place and our heritage to this island,” he said. “The value, worth and importance of the people to their island Lanai must be considered.”
Attempts to reach Castle & Cooke Resorts Vice President and General Manager Steve Bumbar for comment were unsuccessful.
According to a 2008 environmental assessment for the project, Castle & Cooke is proposing a 300- to 400-megawatt wind generation facility, more than 10 times the current size of the Kaheawa Wind Farm at Maalaea.
Each of the 100 to 200 turbines would be mounted on a 260-foot tower, with a total height of 410 feet when the rotor blades are at the top of their arc.
The project is initially planned for a 12,800-acre area, but could be extended into a nearby 9,300-acre area for design or topographical reasons or to avoid impacts on natural and cultural resources, according to the environmental assessment.
The project is in a state conservation district, and Castle & Cooke would need Board of Land and Natural Resources approval to move forward.
DLNR spokeswoman Deborah Ward said the company had not yet submitted an application.
If the cable crosses the special management area along the shoreline on its way to Oahu, that part of the project would probably also need a special management area permit approved by the Lanai Planning Commission, said county Planning Director Jeff Hunt.
Hawaiian Electric Co. announced last year that it had entered into an agreement to buy Lanai wind power from Castle & Cooke and from another major wind farm proposed by First Wind Hawaii on Molokai. Castle & Cooke would agree to a smaller initial project up to 200 megawatts under that deal, which requires approval by the Public Utilities Commission.
Castle & Cooke has said the wind power project will not cut off access to the area for residents and visitors. The perimeters of the windmill towers themselves may be fenced off, along with a substation and maintenance building, but the larger area would remain open to hunters and the public for recreational use, according to the environmental assessment.
Inspections and maintenance activities on the windmills would be done during the workweek as much as possible during hunting season, the report added, so workers wouldn’t encounter hunters who come to the area on weekends.
But many residents, especially hunters, remain skeptical of the promise that they would still be allowed in the area.
“If I was spending millions on windmills like that, it’s crazy,” said hunter Alton Aoki, Joelle Aoki’s husband. “All it takes is one stray bullet. The moment something occurs they’ll shut it down. And that’ll end a way of life that’s existed for generations.”
Hunting isn’t just a recreational activity on Lanai; wild meat is a regular source of food for many families – one that’s become even more important in the last year, as unemployment on the island has shot up.
Subsistence hunting is “quite substantial,” especially now, Alton Aoki said.
“It literally feeds entire families,” he said. “With unemployment insurance becoming exhausted, there are families that literally live off the land.”
“I know guys on the island that have venison almost every night,” he said. “They do burgers, chili. You’d never know you’re eating venison – it’s real good.”
Because of the economy, more people now depend on hunting to survive, he added.
“If these windmills go up, and the electric bill doesn’t go down, and they lose these acres to hunt, that scares people,” he said.
Hunting is also an important micro-economy on Lanai, attracting hundreds of off-island hunters to pursue axis deer every weekend from the end of February through mid-May, and for the mouflon sheep season from August through October.
Hunting permits are awarded by the state in a lottery.
Many Lanai residents rent rooms or cottages to hunters for a secondary source of income, and businesses, especially restaurants like Ferguson’s that appeal to local clientele, see a big boost.
“I bank on the fact that hunting season starts in about six weeks,” he said. “Every weekend, we see 250 to 300 hunters, and if 150 of them come in and eat two to three meals, that makes a big difference to me.”
It’s not just hunters who are concerned about what will happen to the northwestern end of Lanai.
Kepa Maly, executive director of the Lanai Culture and Heritage Center, said the area is not barren but a “rich cultural landscape, a storied place that must be treated with respect.”
Northwestern Lanai figures prominently in Lanai’s ancient history, he said. A site with a clear view to neighboring Molokai was said to be used by a local priest for rituals and prayers during a feud between the two islands around 1400 AD, he said.
“There are archaeological – I prefer the word ‘cultural’ – sites scattered throughout the region,” he said.
Resident Tommy Urpanil shared his concern. “There’s a lot of old petroglyphs, Hawaiian grounds, sacred areas,” he said.
Robin Kaye was also concerned about the visual impact of so many windmills in an area with sweeping views of the coastline and Molokai. While the area is rugged and remote, it is home to some destinations popular for their beautiful views with both residents and the more adventurous tourists, including Garden of the Gods, Shipwreck Beach and Polihua Beach.
“It will clearly have a line-of-sight impact from the beach,” Kaye said.
“The roads they would have to build to access it would completely change the character of the place,” he added.
In its environmental assessment, Castle & Cooke acknowledged that the wind farm would be near scenic areas but said the project’s visual impacts would depend on the weather, time of day, distance from the site and “viewer attitudes.”
“Reactions to the turbines could vary,” the report said. “Some people would prefer the existing visual setting without the turbines. Other people, however, may find them to be an interesting and even aesthetic point of visual interest.”
Lanai contractor Rick Widmaier said he was not concerned about the project’s visual impacts.
“It’s such a remote part of the island. Nobody ever goes there but hunters,” he said. “I see the windmills on Maui, and they don’t bother me.”
Widmaier said he wanted to see the project move forward if it would help the island’s major employer, where company officials have said billionaire Castle & Cooke owner David Murdock has lost more than $60 million on the island over the past three years.
“I support the windmills, because it’s something he can make money on,” Widmaier said. “I support it because I support David. He’s a wonderful man who’s done wonderful things here.”
Other Lanai residents were on the fence – and staying there.
Barbara Zigmond, co-owner of Lanai City restaurant Pele’s Other Garden, said she could see “the pluses and the minuses” of the project.
“It’s not my land, and it’s not my money,” she said, adding that she planned to stay out of the debate.
But even some critics of the project acknowledge they’re not sure how much that debate is going to matter in the long run.
“My feeling is, the writing’s on the wall,” said Butch Gima. “I think it’s going to happen no matter what we do.”
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