It’s Round 2 for the interisland cable bill.
Last year, legislation to facilitate financing for cables that would connect the islands in a statewide electric grid got bogged down in criticism and never made it out of the Legislature.
But this year, Gov. Neil Abercrombie has thrown his political weight behind a new bill, arguing that interisland cables are a critical step for Hawaii in achieving independence from imported fossil fuels. And state officials are working to distance the legislation from the controversial Big Wind project that helped stall its passage last year.
“Let me be clear about this. We need a statewide grid regardless of the ultimate resolution of so-called Big Wind,” Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz told Civil Beat. “The cable project is much more important than that to Hawaii’s economy and energy future than the status and disposition of any particular energy project.”
Under Senate Bill 2785, a cable developer can be considered a public utility, providing assurance to developers that they will recoup their investment, likely to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and earn an adequate return. Without the bill, attracting financing for the undersea cables could be difficult, and ultimately more expensive for ratepayers, lawmakers say.
But Big Wind opponents who worked to derail the cable bill last year are gearing up for a renewed fight this session. By stopping the bill, they hope to stop the wind turbines still being considered for Molokai and Lanai.
“Is there no other solution to our energy challenges than turning Lanai and Molokai into industrial batteries for Oahu?” wrote Robin Kaye of Friends of Lanai in recent testimony to the Senate.
Turning Away from Big Wind?
There is growing evidence that key lawmakers and state officials are pushing to shift state energy policy away from Big Wind, a project that the state energy office estimates could supply 20 percent of Oahu’s electricity needs. The project, which has been in the planning stages for five years and cost the state and electric utility more than $7 million in studies, has been touted as the cornerstone of the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative. But it’s been battered by criticism and lawmakers’ enthusiasm for the project could be waning.
“We are just kind of moving away from Molokai and Lanai and focusing on Maui and the Big Island,” said Sen. Mike Gabbard, chair of the Senate Committee on Energy and Environment.
Gabbard said the focus now is on making Maui the hub, where geothermal in particular, could be brought from the the Big Island and then transmitted on to Oahu. The state’s only geothermal company, Puna Geothermal Venture, which currently operates on the Big Island, is also exploring geothermal resources on Maui. And excess wind energy on Maui that can’t be absorbed by the island’s small electric grid could be sent to Oahu where 75 percent of the state’s population lives. Overall, a connected electric grid is expected to bring greater system stability and allow for greater amounts of renewables to come online.
This doesn’t mean that the proposed wind projects on Lanai and Molokai won’t be moving forward or that they wouldn’t be aided by passage of the cable bill.
But language recently inserted into the legislation by lawmakers could make it harder for Big Wind developers to proceed. Last week the bill was amended to read that “nothing in this act is intended to require the construction of an interisland cable to the islands of Molokai or Lanai unless the communities affirmatively request a cable.”
The language is significant, Gabbard says, because part of the importance of passing the bill is to signal to developers trying to attract financing that the state is behind the project. And the new language suggests significant reservations when it comes to Big Wind.
But whether this will be sufficient to appease the bill’s opponents remains to be seen.
Henry Curtis, executive director of Life of the Land, said that the amendment “doesn’t really mean much,” noting that the bill doesn’t define community.
Gabbard noted that the language of the amendment might need to be tweaked to make it more specific.
The bill is also attracting increased opposition from environmental groups whose concerns have extended beyond Big Wind. Part of the conflict revolves around tapping neighbor island energy resources to feed Oahu’s high energy needs.
“Oahu must be accountable for its excessive use of energy, and it needs to reduce, reuse, and recycle before turning to other counties for its energy needs and projects that will result in such destruction of Hawaiian wildlife and wild places,” said Marjorie Ziegler, executive director of the Conservation Council for Hawaii in written testimony.
But the new bill has also attracted supporters who were critical of last year’s measure.
Doug McLeod, the Maui County commissioner, who raised serious questions about the bill last year, testified in favor of it this year.
Compared “with prior cable bills this bill seems to be a genuine effort to look at a statewide cable system, not just the Big Wind idea of long ‘extension cords’ out to wind farms on Molokai and Lanai,” he wrote in testimony.
Passage of the cable bill doesn’t mean that there will be a statewide electric grid anytime soon. Any cable will have to be paired with specific renewable energy projects, but it’s unclear what those projects will be.
Despite the uncertainty, officials say that the cable bill is an important first step to meeting the state’s long-term energy goals.
“We are going to have to make decisions about which clean energy projects get launched,” said Schatz. “But I don’t think that anyone that is serious about clean energy thinks we can get to these goals without an interisland cable system.”
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