LANAI – More than 25 years ago, billionaire real estate tycoon David Murdock bought this bucolic Hawaiian island and promised to keep it as unchanged as a few high-end resorts and golf courses might allow.
For decades he’s propped up the island economy, keeping residents employed at its tourist spots, even though he’s losing money.
Now, the 88-year-old Murdock has grown tired of dropping as much as $40 million a year on his tropical investment. He’s put the island up for sale.
This was the news delivered by Murdock’s management company, Castle & Cooke, last month to lawmakers as they stood in the parking lot at Lanai’s Kaumalapau harbor for the start of a visit aimed at taking the community’s pulse on the Big Wind project. The proposed 200-megawatt wind farm has pitted neighbor against neighbor in this small island community of fewer than 3,000 people.
More than ever, Lanai is at a crossroads. Murdock’s impending pullout could be devastating. And that means Big Wind – which some think could provide the island a stable financial base – is in jeopardy, too.
“To be frank, we need your help,” Doug McClaflin, who has led the project for Castle & Cooke’s renewable energy division, told the legislators at the harbor where the company hopes to ship in cement, equipment and parts for 56 wind turbines. “If we don’t have that, it’s going to be a tough road.”
The wind farm with its towering blades would generate power for the densely populated island of Oahu and help stabilize electric rates for most of the state’s residents and businesses.
It could bring in $100 million a year to Castle & Cooke, which is what the company would make selling power to Hawaiian Electric Co. That could offset losses on Murdock’s other operations and strengthen the Lanai economy.
Unions have come out in strong support of the project. So have some local residents who see the wind farm as a path toward economic revival.
In addition to sustaining employment for carpenters, dock workers and hotel employees, building roads for the wind farm and upgrading the harbor to handle large equipment is expected to create dozens of jobs.
But opposition is growing too, fueled by resentment that the pristine island landscape would be ruined by dozens of wind turbines whose power wouldn’t be available to local residents and businesses. Many worry about the environmental effects of building and operating the wind farm.
A Changing Economic Base
Northwest of Lanai City, the island’s only town, a thin line of Cook Island pine trees dots a ridge that leads down into a rare dry forest, where Christmas berry, bush lantana and other invasive species choke out native flora.
A bumpy, iron-red dirt road winds through the forest, opening out onto an expansive ridge that descends to the Pacific Ocean. It’s this slope, with gusting winds and the island of Molokai rising in the distance, where Castle & Cooke hopes to install the wind turbines.
While Lanai once shipped pineapples to markets all over the world, it could soon be exporting energy.
Castle & Cooke plans to move forward with the wind farm, despite protests, McClaflin said, although it’s unclear how a sale of the island by Murdock would affect his management company. The company now says it will bid to put the entire 400-megawatt project on Lanai and develop the undersea cable too.
Castle & Cooke has a contract with Hawaiian Electric Co. to purchase the electricity, although the deal still needs approval from the state Public Utilities Commission. The PUC’s chair, Hermina Morita, is from Lanai and her sister, who owns the local newspaper, is a strong supporter of the project.
But a main hurdle is the undersea cable that would transport the energy to Oahu. And that needs the support of lawmakers, including those who visited the island. A bill pending before the Legislature would essentially create a new cable company under PUC oversight to help attract financing for a potential cable developer. Without the legislation, getting money for the billion-dollar project could be extremely difficult.
Developers hope that neighboring Molokai, where legislators spent the previous day, will host another 200-megawatt project, also intended to supply Oahu. Combined, the two wind farms could power up to 20 percent of Oahu’s electricity needs.
With widespread layoffs of construction and hotel workers amid the struggling economy, wind farm supporters hope that a community benefits package being offered by developers, will help put people back to work.
In January, Castle & Cooke along with Hawaiian Electric, proposed contributing to a community development fund, watershed improvements and the water system, a total of about $2 million a year for 20 years, the projected lifespan of the wind farm.
Officials say that $500,000 devoted annually to capital improvements of the Lanai water system and the $250,000 to the Lanai watershed will produce long-term jobs for local residents. Another $1 million, which is derived from 1 percent of the revenues of the wind farm, makes up most of the package, and would be placed in a Lanai Community Benefits Fund for economic development.
The power generated by the wind farm can’t be used on Lanai because developers say there is no way to connect it to Lanai’s existing power generation system. But Hawaiian Electric says it will lower Lanai’s electric rates to be on par with what Oahu pays if the wind farm is built.
Castle & Cooke has also committed to maintaining its current employment levels on Lanai. The company provides about half the jobs on the island.
A Community Fractured
For months, officials from Castle & Cooke and Hawaiian Electric Co. have been meeting with the community to talk about these ideas. But the promise of a cash infusion, lower electric rates and jobs hasn’t swayed everyone.
Brightly colored, early 20th century wood homes line the streets of Lanai City. Last week, signs outside the houses reflected the tensions that have fractured this tight-knit community.
“Yes for Wind Power. Go For It!” reads a sign outside an old plantation house in Lanai City.
On the opposite side of the street: “No Windmills on Lanai.”
Residents spoke of veiled threats and decades-long friendships that had suddenly come to an end.
“It’s really saddened me to see what has gone on in the last six months,” said Kelli Gima, a member of Lanaians for Sensible Growth, a community organization that’s been around for 30 years.
She told legislators how she had moved back to Lanai to raise her son in the environment that had influenced her so deeply growing up.
“I would hate to see this go through and have our community completely torn,” she said.
Opposition to the wind farm has taken different forms. Some people resent being asked to sacrifice a portion of the island to power the energy needs of Oahu. Others are angry about the visual impact of the wind farm on the largely untouched landscape.
The proposed 260-foot-high wind towers, with blades extending to 410 feet, are elegant to some and an eye-sore to others.
The turbines would be spread over about 12,800 acres on the northwest tip – about 15 percent the island. But the windmills wouldn’t cover that much actual acreage – only about 100 acres of land would be needed for the 56 towers and turbines.
It’s an area where people hunt for deer and mouflon sheep. They would hug the coast where residents dive for fish and collect limu. Castle & Cooke has assured people they’ll still be able to access these areas, but not everyone believes the company.
Keahiakawelo, also known as Garden of the Gods, is an expanse of jagged rocks and boulders of all sizes and hues, stacked in various formations that exudes a stark beauty. According to Hawaiian lore, the land was the site of a contest between two kahuna, or priests, on Molokai and Lanai, to see who could keep a fire burning the longest.
It is within the boundaries of the wind farm and for some, its cultural and spiritual value to generations of residents is too great to sacrifice.
“It’s a spiritual connection, it really is,” said Chris Costales, a member of Kupaano Lanai, a Native Hawaiian group that formed about six months ago in opposition to the wind farm. “It’s where you can go to meditate, where you can be alone with nature. It’s where, if you see a Hawaiian owl, or a Hawaiian pueo, it’s a sign that the ancestors are crying out to watch over the land.”
Costales said that the area is where Native Hawaiians have gathered for traditional religious practices.
“That’s why it’s so emotional, we are so connected to the land,” she said. “Most people, they may see it as barren land, but we see it as more than that.”
There is also concern about potential environmental impacts of carving roads through the dry, coastal landscape to construct the turbines and pouring cement in large concrete pads needed to support the structures. Some fear that resulting runoff could choke reefs.
Friends of Lanai, which was formed to oppose the wind farm, is unflinching in its position, decrying the visual impact of the wind farm and arguing that wind technology is a scam that would produce little electricity. Robin Kaye, who leads the organization, wouldn’t let Civil Beat sit in on a meeting with about 50 people and the lawmakers at his house. Kaye said later he thought some people would be fearful of losing their jobs if they spoke against the company’s project in public.
Support Just As Strong
About 60 hotel employees, longshoremen and warehouse workers crowded into a union meeting with the lawmakers where worker after worker recounted their struggles to find work as the economy floundered. They see the wind farm as their hope for the future.
“If you were born and raised here, you don’t want to pack your stuff and go away to somewhere you don’t want to be,” said Elton Atacador, who is 36. “In order to sustain Lanai, we got to support the windmills.”
It’s not just the blue-collar crowd that is anxious for Big Wind. Joining the unions are members of the Island Club, who live in the town’s high-end homes and are given access to the resorts’ spas, pool, equestrian center and golf courses.
Comprised mainly of well-off retirees with business backgrounds, they’re usually pegged the NIMBYs. They told legislators that they weren’t happy about the concrete pads and towering windmills, but in order to support the workforce they didn’t see any other choice.
“This is all about jobs,” said Dave Green, a former Eli Lilly executive who retired to Lanai with his wife. “No one wants it to be dead, and we don’t want it to be Maui. But it’s the only game in town that I know of, and this island’s on life support.”
Alberta de Jetley is a farmer and the publisher of the local paper, Lanai Today. She’s also the sister of Hermina Morita, who as chair of the Public Utilities Commission has a major say in the fate of the wind farms.
De Jetley is an enthusiastic supporter of Big Wind and said the $1 million for the economic development fund proposed by Castle & Cooke and Hawaiian Electric had many possibilities.
She brings up the idea of perhaps building a private prison on Lanai, or what she would like to call a “re-educational center,” with educational and social services for inmates. In addition to providing jobs for Lanai, she says it could also provide important skills to a largely Native Hawaiian inmate population and help keep Hawaii inmates now housed on the mainland in Hawaii.
The notion of a prison on Lanai is not the vision some residents have for the small island, she acknowledges.
But the concern about the economic future of Lanai is widespread.
“Lanai is layers of different worlds that don’t interact,” said Sen. Kalani English, who is from Hana and represents Lanai and Molokai in the Legislature. “And this has stirred things up, so people have to interact. It’s breaking down some of the social and class barriers. It’s the end of a cycle.”
“The realization is setting in with a lot of people that there is going to be deep, structural change,” said English.
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