I’m demanding a refund for the political science degree I earned at George Washington University. It has proven to be totally useless, at least in helping to understand and participate in the political process underlying Big Wind here in Hawaii.
In the words of one our greatest Presidents, and according to my professors, our government should be “…of the people, by the people and for the people.” But here in Hawaii, it is more like “of the corporations, by the politicians, and for the Unions.”
What has happened to us? How can a private mainland developer, while actively and publicly threatening to sell his holdings here in Hawaii, at the same time drive the state’s (that should be the “of the people” part) energy policy in a way that costs “the people” an enormous sum of money – $3,000,000,000 or $2,500 per “person” in Hawaii – for an intermittent energy source that requires oil as back-up? How can a popularly elected, “I-love-the-Neighbor-Islands” Governor threaten eminent domain (that would be taking “from” the people) to push something that’s not even his own energy policy? How can our monopolistic electric utility be an advocate for an on-again off-again source of energy, rather than being energy-agnostic on behalf “of the people”? How can a commission, appointed to oversee our utilities, slap the wrist of that previously mentioned utility for abusing the rules and then turn around and grant them an exemption from the very rules they wrote? Where is the “for the people” part in all of this?
Big Wind first came to Lana’i as mainland developer David Murdock’s scheme to pay back the $650 million dollar mortgage he took out on the asset value of the island of Lana’i. As “owner” of 98 percent of this island’s land, and a friend/major contributor to former Governor Lingle, he arrogantly assumed he would have a free hand in determining not only what’s best for our island’s future, but that of the state. Little did he foresee the political maelstrom he would launch, reminiscent of a topsy-turvy David and Goliath struggle of gargantuan proportions.
It was simple math for Murdock: no worries about cultural sites, or endangered species; centuries of native Hawaiian history potentially wiped out. He would borrow $1 billion dollars to build a wind power plant. He would then immediately reap 65% of the costs from tax credits and grants ($300 million alone from a Federal grant when the switch was turned on – even if the wind wasn’t blowing that day.) Not bad – a 65 percent return on your investment ALL FROM TAXPAYER DOLLARS.
Just look at the cable bills that have run through the past two legislative sessions. These bills (last year’s SB367 is almost a verbatim copy of this year’s SB2785) have generated consistently increasing opposition, both in quantity and volume. Both bills were written by the State’s monopolistic utility to do one thing: GUARANTEE that the entire cost of the undersea cable is returned to the developer through HECO’s ratepayers. Yes, indeed, that’s where the “from the people” part comes in, although not quite what Lincoln had in mind, I’m sure.
But let’s give credit where it’s due: the Chairman of the Senate’s Energy and Environment Committee, Senator Mike Gabbard, stampeded this bill from a dead stall (and thus defeated) directly to the Governor’s desk. His arguments, consistently made and consistently misleading, were that passage of SB2785 “does not mean that an interisland cable will be built, but if a cable is built, this bill authorizes the PUC to regulate any cable as a public utility.” That’s all it does, he said, nothing more than that.
What Senator Gabbard should have made clear is that this “regulatory structure” GUARANTEES that you – if you’re a HECO ratepayer – will have to absorb not only the estimated one billion dollar cost of the undersea cable through “automatic rate adjustments” and “rate surcharges” but you will pay for HECO’s costs for on-island infrastructure improvements as well, regardless of whether they are completed. This underwriting of a private investor with taxpayer dollars is essentially a green light to every cable developer. So much for “of the people, by the people and for the people.”
Senator Rosalyn Baker (who previously represented Lana’i) did try to insert some language into SB2785, before it passed over to the House, providing limited protection for Lana’i and Moloka’i. But the House, under direction of the Neighbor Island-friendly Governor, removed her language, and so Senator Gabbard moved the House version out – without any protection for Lana’i and Moloka’i. Three Senators (Slom, Chun Oakland and Hee) voted no, and ten others voted “with reservations,” which translates into serious issues with a measure that Gabbard maintained didn’t really “do” anything.
There was a lot of talk and angst on the floor about Lana’i and Moloka’i. Lots of verbiage that sounded like “we feel your pain,” or “we’re listening.” But as Senator Sam Slom made very clear – there is a significant difference between listening and actually “hearing;” little of the latter has been visible in this debate.
So what’s next on our government’s plate? We think the PUC will very shortly (now that the bill is safely passed and potential developers very happy) receive a final draft RFP from HECO for 200+ MW of any renewable energy source to provide power for O`ahu. (You may recall that months ago, HECO and Castle & Cooke tried to “give” half of their 400 MW allotment of wind power to Pattern Energy for them to build an industrial wind power plant on Moloka’i. The PUC said “Sorry, boys; it’s not yours to give,” and then called for HECO to re-bid it.)
So what does HECO do? The first draft RFP submitted to the PUC required that ANY cable bid must ALSO include a cable to Lana’i. Period. So say some company wants to build a cable just from the Big Island to Maui and/or then onto O’ahu for geothermal? Too bad; they must also build one from Lana’i. But wait, the day before the Senate has its first floor vote on SB2785, HECO retracts. Now, they are requiring all bidder(s) to provide reasons why they’re not connecting to Lana’i. Aren’t you asking yourself this: what kind of RFP requires you to explain what you’re NOT bidding on?
Just who is running this show? HECO? Castle & Cooke? The PUC? One thing is for sure, it is not “the people.”
But wait – there’s more. You may also remember that DBEDT, the Abercrombie agency overseeing the State’s implementation of HECO and Murdock’s energy policies, issued a Preliminary Notice for a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, as required by law, except that they made a mess of it. They decided, contrary to law, that this PEIS really only had to be about “Big Wind” or “No Big Wind.” Alternatives? Forget it. Solar? Not a chance. Geothermal? Not likely. Wave and ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC)? Get serious. Unfortunately, DBEDT was roundly and soundly criticized for this truly half-assed attempt, and when they went back to the State Procurement Office seeking more money to do it right, SPO told them to take a hike: “It seems very short sighted and detached from the subject matter on DBEDT’s part that the public had to inform them they should consider solar/photovoltaic and geothermal technologies. DBEDT knew of these technologies at the time they issued the initial solicitation and had the opportunity to include it in the solicitation for proper disclosure and open competition. DBEDT chose the narrow scope of services.”
Now we hear that the U.S. Department of Energy has taken over from the inept DBEDT, and a new draft PEIS will be posted. This one just might include other renewable resources, and should include another round of community input or “scoping” sessions.
It’s been a long and tiring several months, and a long and exhausting couple of years for folks on Lanai and Molokai. But Friends of Lana’i and I Aloha Moloka’i will continue to expose the economic, cultural and environmental disaster that this undersea cable and it’s underlying cause – Big Wind on Lana’i and Moloka’i – will create. We deeply appreciate those Senators and Representatives who told us don’t worry; the cable is really for Maui. But “for the people’s” sake, why not say so in a way that can be enforced? Because then, Murdock will not get all those grants and tax breaks, and HECO won’t get all that ratepayer surcharge money.
And this is “for the people?”
About the author: Robin Kaye is a spokesperson for Friends of Lāna‛i
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