It sounds like something straight out of science fiction: a submarine transmission cable snaking for miles along the ocean floor, shuttling gusts of wind-generated electricity to a bustling metropolis. This isn’t science fiction, but it’s also not reality – at least, not yet.
It’s no secret that Hawai’i relies on imported oil for 90 percent of its primary energy needs. In order to curb its craving for fossil fuel, the state established the Hawai’i Clean Energy Initiative (HCEI), which aims to have 70 percent of the state’s energy come from renewable sources by 2030. HCEI catalyzed a number of renewable energy projects featuring wind, biomass, biofuel, photovoltaic, geothermal, concentrated solar and wave energy as potential clean energy sources.
Of these distributed energy sources, wind power developers – dubbed “Big Wind” by many – have emerged as frontrunners in the quest for a clean energy future. Over the years, wind projects have breezed through Maui and O’ahu, ostensibly paving the way for a larger-scale project that will link the windiest, sparsely populated islands of Moloka’i and Lana’i to densely populated O’ahu.
Last year, Hawaiian Electric Company (HECO) set the plan into motion by entering into an agreement with Castle & Cooke Hawai’i and First Wind Hawai’i to purchase 400 megawatts (200 megawatts each) from two proposed wind farms to be built on sizable chunks of land on Moloka’i and Lana’i. Once the proverbial ball was rolling, the project became two-fold: the construction of two wind farms spread across more than 12,000 acres of land, and then, the construction of an undersea cable system linking Lana’i (approximately 70 miles of cable) and Moloka’i (approximately 30 miles of cable) into an upgraded electric grid and operations system on O’ahu. According to HECO, “The Interisland Wind Project [will] bring about 400 megawatts of clean, renewable wind power via undersea cable to O’ahu, where demand for electricity is greatest, but the potential for renewable energy is limited.” Once the system is up and running, project developers say there are plans to eventually connect the cable system to Maui.
Key players include HECO, which will run the undersea cable system, Moloka’i Ranch, Castle & Cooke Hawai’i and Pattern Energy (which replaced First Wind Hawai’i), slated to develop the proposed wind farms on Lana’i and Moloka’i, respectively, and the State of Hawai’i, which has committed to develop – and find ways to fund – the project.
It’s an ambitious endeavor, for sure. But it’s also complicated and submerged in controversy, as some believe the project is not a catchall remedy for Hawai’i’s energy woes, and may, in fact, create more problems than solutions. Any potential adverse effects – particularly from the installation of the transmission line – remain to be seen in the absence of an environmental impact study; however, the state Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism recently announced a $1.5 million contract with the University of Hawai’i School of Ocean, Earth Science and Technology to conduct an ocean floor survey between the three islands.
But the sheer magnitude of the project is raising eyebrows across the state, begging the painfully obvious question: Who is going to pay for this?
An initial attempt to have Hawai’i residents foot the bill proved unsuccessful when it stalled in the last legislative session, but nonetheless received a good deal of support from legislators. The effort to have taxpayers pay up is expected to resurface in the state legislature next session.
The bill, SB 367, sought to establish a regulatory structure for the project and would have authorized a “cable surcharge” assessed to ratepayers as a means to cover the installation costs of the cable system – costs that are yet unknown. Additionally, the bill called for a “rate adjustment” to cover HECO’s investment in the infrastructure of the wind farms and the cable system. Not surprisingly, SB 367, and the financial feasibility of the project itself, has been met with an escalating degree of opposition, particularly on Moloka’i, Lana’i and Maui, where the “not in my backyard” sentiment has taken on a whole new meaning.
On Moloka’i, Bond says residents were blown away by the scope of the wind project. According to an island-wide survey, more than 90 percent of its residents vehemently objected to the construction of a wind farm (or “wind factory,” as he refers to them) of nearly 70 turbines sited on 11,000 acres of land owned by Moloka’i Ranch. For the most part, Lana’i residents appear to feel the same way, evident by the scores of yard signs protesting the wind farm that would encompass nearly 30 percent of that island. However, there is a contingent – primarily laborers and union personnel – that ardently supports the project. “It will create much-needed jobs and boost the local economy,” says International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Chairperson Jason Medeiros. “We need this, and more importantly, Hawai’i needs this.”
But the ends don’t justify the means, says Henry Curtis, executive director of Life of the Land, an environmental and community action group in Honolulu, who argues that powering O’ahu should not require the industrialization of Lana’i and Moloka’i. “It [the Interisland Wind Project] was conceived in back rooms,” he contends, arguing that Big Wind is, in effect, blowing smoke – clouding the bigger picture – and that favorability toward wind power is indicative of a much bigger issue. “Although yesterday HECO favored biofuels and tomorrow they have said they will go with geothermal if Big Wind fails, they have publicly stated that there is no alternative to Big Wind.”
Bond agrees. “It’s a huge scam foisted on the state,” he says. “In forty years in the energy industry, I’ve never seen anything as completely crooked as this. Intermittent power makes very little sense. It’s not cost-effective. It’s an engineering and marine disaster, and a financial tsunami waiting to happen.”
While approval for Castle & Cooke’s wind farm on Lana’i was granted by the Public Utilities Commission (PUC), the fate of the Moloka’i portion of the project is still up in the air, thanks in part to those determined to take the wind of HECO’s sails.
In July, Life of the Land and Maui County intervened in HECO’s proposal to have ratepayers finance its venture into Big Wind, contending that the utility should explore alternatives to wind power, or, in other words, not place all of its eggs into one basket. In addition, questions arose surrounding the legitimacy of the wind farm deal brokered between the two developers, with Castle & Cooke ceding 200 megawatts to Pattern Energy and Moloka’i Ranch.
Apparently, the PUC agreed. Soon after the motion was filed, PUC Chairwoman Hermina Morita issued a statement, saying, “Part of the PUC’s role in clean energy development in Hawai’i is to ensure an open and fair process. However, the proposed assignment of 200 megawatts to Moloka’i Ranch goes beyond the scope of the PUC’s waiver from the original competitive bid process.” As a result, the PUC ordered HECO to accept bids for at least 200 megawatts of renewable energy from all available renewable energy sources – not just Big Wind. As of this publication date, HECO has petitioned the ruling.
Many believe this may open the door for other renewable energy projects – and shutter Big Wind on Moloka’i for good. County of Maui Energy Commissioner Douglas McLeod explains, “HECO needs to be willing to look at technologies beyond wind. The PUC’s decision is certainly a catalyst for exploring other options.”
Obviously, this is an amorphous issue that is constantly evolving and the outcome remains to be seen. Yet Big Wind on Lana’i is inching closer to reality, much to the dismay of residents like Robin Kaye, spokesperson for Friends of Lana’i. “Why spend $1 billion for a cable, take over and cause irreparable damage to a huge portion of a neighbor island, all for perhaps six to eight percent of O’ahu’s electrical demands,” he asks, “when we could better invest that money on solving O’ahu’s challenges – on O’ahu?”
Yet, as the key players continue to crunch the numbers, one lingering question remains: is Big Wind really the best option?
Not even close, says Bond. Only if the wind blows consistently, the curtailment factor (or, how much power is lost as it is flows through the pipeline), will yield a wind capacity factor that is far less than what the project promises to deliver. Bond estimates that out of the 400 megawatts generated between both wind farms, only 36 megawatts will actually be produced. And by the time it reaches the grid on O’ahu, it will only power two percent of residential homes on the island.
Project officials dispute these figures; however, there is no concrete data to either prove or disprove this assertion, which is why HECO intends to study the short- and long-term possibilities of Big Wind, but only if the state follows suit. As of yet, there is no clear “Plan B” that has been introduced as a pathway to the state’s clean energy goals, leaving some to suspect that the 2030 HCEI benchmark may soon be dust in the wind.
“There are a half-dozen roads we can take to be 100 percent energy self-sufficient,” says Curtis. “We must start with definitions. Under state law, heat from coal plants, ethanol made from coal and coal burned in garbage-to-energy facilities are all considered to be 100 percent renewable energy. Thus, the HCEI goal of 70 percent clean energy by 2030 aims at the wrong target – a corrupted definition of renewable energy, as clean energy is not defined under HCEI or state law, but is generally believed to mean renewable energy.”
For starters, Bond argues that Hawai’i would be best served by adopting energy conservation measures, which are very easy and very low cost. HECO continually targets ratepayers with public service announcements that educate people on energy efficiency and environmental non-profits, like Kanu Hawaii, are pushing their own agenda of energy conservation throughout communities across the state.
But Kaye says we don’t need a Plan B. Like most of Hawai’i’s solar energy installers, he feels that the state needs to help move Hawai’i toward a decentralized renewable energy solution, where a multitude of smaller PV systems on top of residences and businesses in concert with other types and sources of renewable energy are the key energy producers, and not a continuation of our monopolistic centralized system. And with the PUC’s most recent Big Wind decision, Kaye believes that we may actually see proposals that address just that approach.
Mike Bond also sees solar as a better alternative to Big Wind because PV generated power is more reliable than wind and it also places the consumer in control – not the utility. “We could generate far more electricity out of 155,000 photovoltaic systems than five Big Winds,” exclaims Bond. “There’s no use of thinking of something like Big Wind until every house has PV on its rooftop.”
Life and Land Director Henry Curtis is putting forth his ambitious vision of the creation of a Hawai’i Energy Futures Table as one viable – and realistic – pathway to reaching a win-win solution. “Everyone who wants to sit at the table must ante in a solution to get the state off fossil fuels by 2040,” he says. “After being admitted to the table, people are free to change their views on solutions, as long as they still accept that Hawai’i will be fossil fuel free by 2040.”
We can only hope.