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First Wind abandons Kahuku expansion as wind farm remains offline

Twelve wind turbines that rise above Kahuku remained motionless Friday, like frozen giants sitting among the Koolau Mountains.

It’s been nearly three months since a fire knocked the Kahuku wind farm offline, and local residents are wondering when the project by Massachusetts-based First Wind will once again generate power.

“A lot of Kahuku residents feel since it’s here, that the sooner they find a solution and can get this facility up and running again, the better it is for everybody,” said Kent Fonoimoana, a board member of the Kahuku Community Association.

The 30-megawatt wind farm, capable of powering 7,700, homes was crippled Aug. 1 after a fire erupted inside the project’s battery warehouse. It was the third fire inside the 7,000 square foot warehouse since the wind farm began generating power in March of 2011.

First Wind spokesman Kekoa Kaluhiwa tells KITV4 the cause of the fire remains undetermined, and it’s not known when project might get back online.

“Unfortunately, we still haven’t come to a conclusion on the exact cause of (the fire)” said Kaluhiwa. “We are working with Hawaiian Electric on steps forward, and seeing how we can bring the project back online.”

Although First Wind could face sanctions under a 20-year contract with Hawaiian Electric Co. if power generation doesn’t resume, HECO spokesman Darren Pai said the focus right now is getting the wind farm back online.

“That’s our principle concern right now, and we’re not focused on contract provisions that don’t have any immediate impact,” said Pai.

Meanwhile, First Wind has abandoned plans to add five wind turbines to a parcel of land below the current wind farm footprint in Kahuku. The decision comes after the KCA voted in May not to support the expansion.

“They made it quite clear that they do not want to see more turbines in the Kahuku area,” said Kaluhiwa.

Although the KCA board voted to support construction of the original wind farm, some board members like Fonoimoana are now openly wondering whether the project was the right fit for the area. That’s especially true now that the wind farm has ceased generating power.

“I consider wind turbines a huge blight on the community,” said Fonoimoana. “We are surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, and in my honest opinion, the answer to our energy problems or energy challenges, are surrounding us.”

The battery energy storage system used by First Wind in Kahuku and the Kaheawa Wind II project on Maui, was developed by Texas based company Xtreme Power. The batteries are needed to evenly distribute energy along the electrical grid.

State Sen. Mike Gabbard is concerned enough about the Kahuku wind farm being rendered useless that he’s planning an informational briefing at the state Capitol sometime in December.

“We haven’t set a date yet, but when we bring all the parties together, that will be able to provide some of the answers for the community,” said Gabbard, who chairs the Committee on Energy and the Environment. “Bringing together First Wind, Extreme Power, also Castle and Cooke (and) the Department of Health, so we can just see what’s going on.”

Kahuku residents don’t receive any discounts on electrical rates after supporting construction of the wind farm. Instead, First Wind provides $45,000 a year in the form of a benefits package.

However, Fonoimoana and other members of the KCA want to know exactly how the money is being spent. The KCA received $2,500 from First Wind as part of the deal, but hasn’t received a list of other expenditures.

“We have requested in writing and in person an accounting of who’s getting what,” said Fonoimoana, “But to date, we have yet to receive that from First Wind.”

Kaluhiwa was unable to provide a list of organizations receiving funds from the benefits package, but said First Wind supports efforts in education, erosion control, health care and perpetuation of the Hawaiian culture.