The Maui mayor’s office has joined a growing chorus of voices calling for greater openness and public input in the way the state and Hawaiian Electric Co. are handling a proposal to develop wind energy projects on Lanai and Molokai that would transmit the electricity to Oahu via undersea cables.
The controversial plan has drawn fire from environmental and community groups as well as some government officials for both the substance of the project itself and what is perceived as lack of transparency in the planning process.
Those that have expressed concerns about the so-called “Big Wind” proposal say one of the problems is that the Public Utilities Commission, which has been involved in many of the preliminary decisions on the project, doesn’t have the same information disclosure standards as other state agencies.
Douglas McLeod, energy commissioner for Maui County, sent a letter to PUC Chairwoman Hermina Morita last month expressing frustration with the lack of transparency in the process. He also cited several cases where there has been conflicting information on the project provided by officials from the U.S. Department of Energy, the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, and HECO.
“It is time for open discussion and debate in the community on the benefits and the overall question of whether expenses associated with the Big Wind project are reasonable,” McLeod wrote. “We ask guidance from the PUC on where you would like to see this discussion occur.”
The mayor’s office followed up the three-page letter with a request on June 6 to intervene in a PUC case in which HECO is seeking permission to recover from ratepayers $4 million in costs for studies associated with the Big Wind project. Because HECO is a regulated utility, it must obtain permission from the PUC on all matters dealing with electric rates.
McLeod said the county was seeking to intervene in the HECO case because other public forums were not adequately addressing issues like costs associated with the Big Wind project and community benefits packages being promised to residents by the wind farm developers and HECO. The specifics of the community benefits packages are determined by HECO and the wind farm developers as part of power purchase agreements that set the price of the electricity being bought by HECO.
“Our mayor has repeatedly stated that the proposed community benefits of the Big Wind project are too low. One of the problems seems to be the lack of a forum to discuss community benefits before the PPA is signed,” McLeod wrote. “It is all the more frustrating when the PPA terms are being kept secret from the community itself.”
Maui County’s attempt to intervene in HECO’s cost recovery case will be closely watched by community and environmental groups that have unsuccessfully tried to participate in other PUC dockets related to the Big Wind project. One environmental group in particular – Honolulu-based Life of the Land – has been rejected by the PUC in its roughly half-dozen attempts to intervene in Big Wind-related dockets. The PUC has yet to rule on Life of the Land’s request to intervene in the latest cost recovery case.
Although HECO has formally objected to Life of the Land’s intervention request, the utility has yet to take a position on Maui County’s request. However, HECO’s initial response to the Maui request was not favorable.
“The County of Maui raises legitimate issues, but this docket is not where they can be addressed,” company spokesman Peter Rosegg said. “The docket concerns only technical studies to determine the possibility of adding large amounts of wind and solar energy to the Oahu grid.
“The results do not mean the Interisland Wind project will be done, only that it is possible. And the studies have value in meeting Hawaii’s renewable goals aside from that project.”
Rosegg said whatever happens with the Big Wind project, HECO should be able to recover the cost of studies because the PUC already has endorsed the overall goals of the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative, which mandates that 40 percent of the state’s energy come from renewable sources by 2030.
“The county’s concerns can and will be addressed in other ways,” Rosegg said. “For example, community benefits could be part of a purchase power agreement that must be approved by the PUC or as a requirement for county permits. There will be ample opportunity to consider this and other concerns raised by the county.”
Obtaining intervener status in a PUC docket is the only way organizations can gain access to all the information in a given case, said Henry Curtis, executive director of Life of the Land. HECO often redacts cost information in its PUC filings, citing competitive reasons. Only approved parties to a case can see unredacted material, Curtis said.
He said the current docket regarding HECO’s cost recovery request was “redacted far more than normal. This is one of the most egregious examples I have ever seen.”
Curtis also said he has met with resistance in trying to obtain public documents from various state agencies related to the Big Wind project. He said DBEDT wanted Life of the Land to pay $15,000 to make photocopies of all its materials related to Big Wind. The PUC requested $8,000 to do the same.
Friends of Lanai, a community group that opposes the development of a wind farm on the island, was turned down by the PUC in its attempt to intervene in one of the major PUC dockets that allowed the Big Wind project to move forward.
“The whole process has been so opaque. It’s been very frustrating trying to get information,” said FOL spokesman Robin Kaye.
“The rules of the game are so stacked in HECO’s favor,” added Kaye’s wife, Sally. “They pull out the pass card when they need it, and they pull out the confidentiality card when they need it.”
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