Standing on the side of Maunaloa Highway last Wednesday – with the red dirt and green grass of Pu`u Nana Hill behind him, the blue ocean and white sands of Mo`omomi down below – Kanoho Helm made a sweeping gesture with his hand. He pointed to the some of the 11,000 acres on which local families hunt deer and gather opihi to feed their families, he said, and which is home to important shrines and burial grounds.
Raised in Ho`olehua, Helm knows these lands well. But for some of the others with him, including Sen. Mike Gabbard, the moment was an introduction to some of the 11,000 acres on which developers propose to build industrial wind turbines, sending renewable energy to Oahu via undersea cable to help the state meet its clean energy goals.
Gabbard, who chairs the senate’s Energy and Environment Committee, had just arrived on Molokai for a day-long tour, along with fellow committee member Sen. Kalani English, whose district includes Molokai, Rep. Denny Coffman, who chairs the Energy and Environment Committee in the House, and Susan Kodani, senior adviser to Congresswoman Mazie Hirono.
The legislators planned the unusual trip – meeting with residents in informal settings instead of during formal hearings – to get community mana`o about the proposed wind farms and cable.
They had previously scheduled a site tour with representatives from developer Pattern Energy, a company with plans to develop the wind farm on Molokai. But as that tour was canceled, the legislators took an impromptu trip to the highway’s edge and part-way down the road to Hale O Lono with Helm and other residents.
Senators’ reasons for canceling the Pattern tour varied. English said “[Gabbard] wanted us to come here was neutral as possible; that’s why we told [Pattern representatives] ‘no, you don’t need to show us around,’” while Gabbard later said it was Pattern who “called and said we basically think it’s better if we give you maps, so there’s not any perception out there” that the tour is biased.
Keiki-Pua Dancil of Bio-Logical Capital, which partnered with Pattern Energy earlier this year to pursue the project as Molokai Renewables, said in an email that with Hawaiian Electric Company’s new request for proposals “in the midst of a competitive bidding process, it would be premature for someone from our team to conduct a site tour at this time.”
Gabbard and English said the informal tour they received from local residents was beneficial to understanding the proposal. They also made stops in Maunaloa, Kualapu`u and Kaunakakai, where they heard a consistent chorus of opposition to the proposed “Big Wind” project.
“I just want you to fully understand we came to listen to you guys,” Gabbard, who chairs the senate’s Energy and Environment Committee, said to a crowd under a tree in Maunaloa. “Nothing’s etched in stone.”
The vast majority of people at gatherings in Maunaloa, Kualpu`u and Kaunakakai said they opposed the wind turbines. Many of the nearly 300 total attendees they represented their entire `ohana and the dozens of people who could not attend because of work.
The trip preceded a similar visit to Lanai last Thursday, which Gabbard said was more divided among residents for and against the project.
Throughout the Molokai visit, English distanced himself from Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who has expressed support for Big Wind, including on a PBS program. Abercrombie also was one of more than 20 governors who asked President Obama in a July 20 letter for a “combined intergovernmental state-federal task force on wind energy development … charged with expediting deployment activities.”
“You have to understand there’s a division,” English told the crowd in Maunaloa. “The governor might have one … point of view, but we don’t necessarily agree. In fact, there’s big differences.” He later added in Kualapu`u, “The administration has one point of view and we have another, so don’t confuse us with the governor… We’re here because we haven’t made up our minds yet.”
Looking to Future Generations
A consistent theme of those opposing the wind turbines was preserving the Molokai lifestyle for future generations. Industrial wind turbines would “ruin our lifestyle here on Molokai for someone else’s benefit,” said Andrew Arce, a third-generation homesteader, during the group’s stop in Kualapu`u.
Matt Helm said he wanted his four children to “have the same experience I had here, gathering our food without ‘no trespassing’ signs,” while Ui Colon echoed similar sentiments.
“I know how valuable it is to raise families [on Molokai],” she said. “We know that they’re gonna grow up and teach [the next generation] how to feed their families.”
Others simply said the project didn’t make sense, neither economically nor environmentally. Many said they supported green energy, but said the wind turbines’ destruction of land and reef meant this project was not truly green.
“What appalls me is what little regard for intelligence and expertise is given to people who have lived here for generations and generations,” Ehulani Kane said in Kualapu`u.
Questioning the Benefits
While most meeting attendees opposed the project, Gabbard he said he spoke to about “half a dozen [residents who] had not taken a position for or against” and “wanted more information on what kind of benefits” might be available to Molokai.
Jimmy Duvauchelle, who delivered the pule before the gathering in Maunaloa, said the prospects of windmills made him emotional and frustrated. While he doesn’t like the idea of them, he said benefits might help Molokai in the face of extreme economic challenges.
“I wanna see some kind of return to the community,” he told the crowd at Maunaloa, saying he had not yet made up his mind on whether to support the initiative or not. “I don’t know if I like the windmills, I don’t like the ugliness. But if that windmill’s gonna help our people, I don’t mind the ugliness.”
Resident Juan Trinidad offered similar testimony in Kaunakakai.
“Whether it’s windmills or some other things, we’re in a very, very bad [economic] situation. We are getting worse,” he said, questioning whether the wind farm might help struggling families.
Gabbard recommended residents seeking more information call his office at 808-586-6830. He added it was also partially Pattern’s kuleana to provide education about the proposals.
‘Loud and Clear’ Opposition
Still, most said there were no benefits worth the impacts of industrial turbines.
“It’s overwhelming opposition to this project, and you as our elected officials carry our voice into the walls of the House or the Senate,” Marcus Helm told the legislators at the Mitchell Pauole Center. “With that, there will be no windmills.”
Resident Adolph Helm noted a resolution recently passed by the Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs which urges the governor and state legislators to “support sustainable, low impact alternative energy that will make Oahu energy self-sufficient rather than dependent upon Lanai and Molokai for its energy.”
The resolution also seeks to “protect the open spaces, natural resources and Hawaiian lifestyle of Molokai, the last Hawaiian island.”
Gabbard said he heard residents’ mana`o “loud and clear.” He said his three biggest takeaways were that the “vast majority” of residents “do not want a wind farm under any conditions,” that Molokai residents want each island to take care of its own needs, and that natural resources should be left alone.
In a phone interview Sunday, Gabbard said he had not yet had a chance to fully debrief with the other legislators.
“The feedback that we got was incredible on both islands,” he said.
Videos of the visits recorded by documentarian PF Bentley are available online at youtube.com/user/IAlohaMolokai.