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Gale winds ahead: Wind power is stirring up the neighbor isles, where the resource would be captured

Mike Hamnett co-chairs the Hawaii Energy Policy Forum, based on the University of Hawaii-Manoa campus, a vantage point that gives him an excellent view of the state’s many advantages in the renewable energy movement.

He also sees its handicaps.

“The problem with Hawaii is that the geography is all wrong,” Hamnett said. “We’ve got all the people on Oahu and all the resources on the other islands.”

In no case is this mismatch so plainly a problem as it is with the Hawaii Interisland Renewable Energy Program (HIREP), a proposal to capture mammoth bursts of wind energy on the western faces of Lanai and Molokai and then transmit them to Oahu over hundreds of miles of undersea cabling, electrical pipes that, state planners promise, are the diameter of a tuna can.

The state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy, is preparing a programmatic environmental impact statement for the system, and has taken the first round of comments in hearings on several islands.

This type of EIS is a bit of a departure, because it’s meant as a survey on the general concept, underscoring what issues would need to be considered by any individual project seeking permits later. So far, two developers have an interest in the enterprise, which would yield a total of 400 megawatts of power between the two islands: Castle & Cooke Inc. on Lanai and First Wind on Molokai.

Some residents, accustomed to commenting on concrete proposals for a specific location, may have found this a little disconcerting. They raised concerns that various cultural and environmental resources, including hunting and fishing, could be affected, although nobody yet knows where the array of mammoth windmills would be planted or precisely where the cable would snake its way from shore and through the ocean.

But the message the state’s green-energy team gleaned so far from the hearings is that the neighbor islanders feel put-upon by a plan that, they fear, will blight their relatively pristine landscape to fill the energy needs of urban Oahu.

And yet, as Middle Eastern political shocks drive oil prices skyward, everyone agrees that remaining dependent on petroleum would be disastrous in the long term, no matter how high the short-term public relations hurdles appear now. It’s shepherding a recalcitrant community toward more energy independence that is the challenge for the state.