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Fewer, bigger vanes planned at wind farm

WAILUKU – Plans for Auwahi Energy’s major new wind farm at Ulupalakua Ranch have been significantly revised to account for environmental and archaeological impacts and community comments.

Key changes include reducing the number of wind towers in the project from 15 to eight. The new design would incorporate bigger electricity generators, 3 megawatts each, allowing the project’s total power output to remain nearly the same at 24 megawatts, about the same size as the Kaheawa II wind farm planned for Maalaea.

The Maui Planning Commission on Tuesday accepted the final environmental impact statement for the project.

The larger generators will require the turbines to use bigger vanes, and the new design would have vanes standing about 450 feet high at their peak.

Auwahi Energy LLC, a division of Sempra, has also committed to drilling for water in the area. A well permit has been obtained and work should start this fall.

The idea is two-fold: to provide water for the construction phase, which will cut down on traffic to the remote site; and to provide a permanent source of water to homesteaders at Kahikinui, some of the project’s nearest neighbors.

County Energy Commissioner Doug McLeod told the commission that the homesteaders were asked what sort of community benefit they would like to see. Kahikinui has about 75 homesteads, and the area is almost without modern amenities – no electricity or piped water and poor roads.

Electricity might have seemed like an obvious choice, but McLeod said most of the homesteads are already equipped with off-grid power.

The proposal is to bring water down from the well to a tank near the highway, where homesteaders could fill up. There is no plan to pipe water several additional miles into the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands area.

McLeod said the county has been working since January to establish a policy regarding community benefits to be requested from alternative energy developers. Besides Auwahi, the Big Wind project being pushed by the state for Lanai and Molokai would produce hundreds of megawatts, all or mostly for Oahu.

McLeod said the county policy is flexible and will differ for projects being built to export power out of the county, compared with in-county projects.

The Auwahi proposal has been around for years, originally floated by Shell Wind. It lay dormant until California-based Sempra took it over.

The location is not far as the pueo flies from Wailea, but the roads are narrow, twisty and, in some cases, unpaved.

Initial planning would have resulted in much of the project’s truck traffic coming through Kula.

However, the “superloads” would not fit through the Keokea bottleneck, so the biggest components must go from Kahului Harbor via Kihei to Wailea and then up some unimproved ranch roads. These will need to be upgraded.

Munekiyo & Hiraga planning consultant Leilani Pulmano said three possible routes from Wailea were explored, including one extending Piilani Highway, but the original route proved the least disruptive.

By reducing the number of towers to eight, the construction traffic will be reduced.

During pouring of concrete pads, there will be 40 round trips a day on eight days for concrete trucks, plus five trips per day for eight more days for other concrete work.

The intention is to split the construction traffic between the two routes, so that neither feels the whole impact.

As important as traffic for reducing the number of towers was the desire to avoid sensitive archaeological and environmental sites.

Johanna Kamaunu testified that she believed that the environmental impact statement was incomplete because it did not contain a “Section 106” review. This requires consultation with Native Hawaiian groups, but only if there is a trigger of federal funding. Kamaunu said the tax subsidies for wind power amounted to federal funding, but Pulmano said no federal funding is involved.

The commission did not agree there was a Section 106 trigger, although some of the same exploration will come when the project seeks its National Environmental Policy Act review.

The project also will need special management area and county special use permits.

There will be an additional environmental review when the incidental take and endangered species mitigation plans are written. The area is home to four endangered animals, the Hawaiian petrel, Hawaiian hoary bat, nene and Blackburn’s sphinx moth; and several rare native plants.

There have been several proposals to make the intermittent wind power “firm,” either by including a pumped storage facility to pump water up during times of low demand, and release it to turn turbines during peak periods; or by utility batteries.

The pumped storage idea fell by the wayside during Shell’s tenure, although Maui Electric Co. President Ed Reinhardt said he still has hopes of seeing pumped storage used somewhere.

The current plan involves batteries, although in his testimony Dick Mayer criticized the amount of battery backup as too little. “It would be excellent if additional batteries could be installed now,” he said.