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Driving down Kamehameha Highway toward Oahu’s North Shore, one has historically seen a postcard picture of red dirt, pineapples, coffee and Norfolk pine trees with blue corduroy lines ahead, signaling the radical waves that make this place legendary. This drive to the country has changed recently. As soon as Haleiwa comes into view, what catches the eye to the right are the 30 industrial windmills stretched out on the hillside from Chun’s Reef to Waimea Valley. To some, these turbines represent reduced greenhouse gas emissions and advancing Hawaii’s energy security by using local resources. To others, they stand for dramatic overstatements of benefits and actual power generated and drastic understatements of costs to taxpayers and adverse ecological impacts.
There are seven industrial wind farms in Hawaii–six are currently operational. The main developers are First Wind at Kawailoa and Kahuku on Oahu and Kaheawa I and II on Maui; Sempra Energy, which owns Auwahi Wind on Ulupalakua Ranch on Maui; and Hawi Renewable Development at Hawi and Apollo Energy Corporation (Tawhiri Power) at South Point on Hawaii Island. Kahuku Wind had a fire in its battery building in August 2012 and has been offline since. “Kahuku Wind was on pace to have a very productive year,” said Peter Rosegg, Hawaiian Electric Co. (HECO) spokesman, in an email. “In the first seven months of 2012, the wind energy produced by Kahuku Wind saved us from burning more than 88,000 barrels of oil,” he noted.
At First Wind’s newest 69-megawatt (MW) wind farm on Oahu’s North Shore, on Kamehameha Schools’s Kawailoa Plantation Lands from Haleiwa to Waimea Bay, the most modern wind turbines in the industry have been erected, 30 strong. Each blade weighs more than 30,000 pounds, is nearly 165 feetlong to the tip and is made of fiberglass. The five sections that make up the tower are made of steel: Each section weighs more than 100,000 pounds and totals about 330 feet in length. The nacelle at the top holds the generator and gearbox and weighs 250,000 pounds. The foundation is made of concrete, is 16 feet in diameter, and goes 30 feet below ground. Altogether, one Kawailoa wind turbine is more than one million pounds of steel, concrete and fiberglass, standing 493 feet tall.
With the capacity to power about 14,500 homes if wind were a continuous source (it’s not), these 30 million pounds of steel, concrete and fiberglass represent one of Hawaii’s most hopeful options for renewable energy. Industrial wind was the fastest-growing source of electric power generation in the U.S.–production quadrupled from 2000 to 2006, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. In 2012, wind is the most-installed of new electrical generating capacity in the nation.
Tax preferences for renewable electricity production in 2011 totaled $1.4 billion, and most of that money went to wind. The recent extension of the wind energy Production Tax Credit and Investment Tax Credit make wind projects attractive for developers and states trying to fulfill renewable energy goals. Hawaii wind facilities must reach an agreement subject to Public Utilities Commission (PUC) approval to sell power they produce to each island’s utility. The power bought from the wind farm by the utility is sold by the utility to all ratepayers islandwide. Every contract Hawaiian Electric Industries (HEI) signs for renewable energy is a fixed-price, long-term contract. “This means that the more renewable energy we have, the lower the customer’s total bill will be compared to what it would be if we were still very dependent on oil,” Rosegg says. Mark Glick, state energy administrator, agrees. “They key is that wind is a fixed price over the next 20 years, as opposed to the cost of oil,” which is expected to rise, he wrote in an email. While developers must comply with regulations and permits applicable to any business, there is no specific government agency or third-party entity regulating the efficiency of wind power.
Wind power is a “non-firm,” “as available” energy source: It cannot be stored, must be used as it’s generated and must therefore always be backed up by conventional electricity sources. When the wind doesn’t blow, wind facilities have to get their power from HEI just like everybody else.
The numbers are tricky: A wind project is usually promoted as being able to generate “energy to power X number of homes.” In reality, because wind is intermittent and needs backup from other sources, the “number of homes” calculation focuses on the energy capable of being produced (the industry calls this “nameplate capacity”), rather than how much power is actually generated. Locations with high average wind speeds might produce at 40–50 percent of their nameplate capacity, while locations with low average wind speeds might produce at 10–20 percent.
“If Hawaii is going to reduce dependence on oil, we need all the wind power and all the solar–both utility scale and customer sited–we can get at a reasonable price,” says Rosegg. “Since wind and solar are variable or non-firm renewables, we need firm renewables like biofuel, biomass, waste-to-energy and geothermal to back them up.”
Wind produced 261,206 megawatt hours (MWh) out of 862,000 MWh of renewables generated in Hawaii in 2011, not including Kauai, according to the last year of renewable data HEI has on file. Therefore, wind makes up about 3.5 percent of HEI’s total generation in 2011. This does not include the three wind projects that came online in 2012–Kaheawa Wind Power II, Auwahi Wind, and Kawailoa Wind–which have the capacity to more than double wind power’s output in 2011, according to Glick.
Using renewable energy doesn’t necessarily correlate with cheaper means of production or lower electricity rates. A 2008 Cambridge Energy Research Associates report concluded that wind power is “more expensive than conventional power generation in part because wind’s intermittent production patterns need to be augmented with dispatchable generators to match power demand.”
According to Robert Bryce, author of Power Hungry: The Myths of Green Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future (Perseus Books, 2011), wind technologies require huge amounts of land to deliver relatively small amounts of energy; they disrupt natural habitats, and don’t substantially reduce CO2 emissions since fossil fuels are used to offset wind’s unreliability. “The Achilles’ heel for the wind business is the incurable intermittency of the wind,” said Bryce, a senior fellow with the Center for Energy Policy and the Environment at the Manhattan Institute, in a phone interview. In addition, Bryce contends, “Wind has a big footprint. I think solar, particularly in sunny locations like Hawaii, makes incredible sense. The advantage of solar is that it doesn’t take up land, you can put it on a rooftop–and you have a lot of rooftops.”
Other critics, like the Industrial Wind Action Group, maintain that, since wind facilities only require small operational staffs once short-term construction jobs are complete, they do not create long-term jobs, which means local economic benefits are low. Rosegg disagrees: “Renewables from local resources prevent us from sending so much money out of state. A dollar spent locally creates jobs, other economic opportunities and taxes to pay for education.”
Robin Kaye and members of the nonprofit Friends of Lanai oppose big wind, saying that the roads built will ruin the beauty of the dryland forest, desecrate hundreds of cultural sites, endanger native and protected birds and raise electricity rates because of an undersea cable projected to cost more than $1 billion. Kaye says there’s a reason wind is pushed more than solar. “HECO doesn’t make any money on solar; they actually lose money,” Kaye said via telephone interview. “But on a big wind project, they make a lot of money. If everybody put solar on their roofs, the demand for electricity would significantly decrease, but nobody makes a huge amount of money off of that. So it becomes a greed-driven, rather than a green-driven, issue.”
Rosegg replies, “Hawaiian Electric does not make money on either wind or solar owned and operated by others,” and owns no wind and little solar generation itself. “Customers pay exactly what we do, with no markup or profit for the utility,” he adds. Since the PUC instituted decoupling, he explains, “The company earns revenues based on service to customers and acquisition of renewable energy, not sales.”
Birds and bats
There is no industrial wind on Kauai because of its high population of endangered species. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), wind turbines are estimated to kill half a million birds a year, many of them protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Eagle Protection Act. Yet no wind company has ever been prosecuted under wildlife protection laws because they can apply for a permit that allows a certain amount of permissible “incidental take” killed by turbines.
Take of Hawaiian endangered and threatened species likely to result from construction and operation of wind facilities includes the Hawaiian Hoary Bat, Nene, Hawaiian Petrel, Newell’s Shearwater, Hawaiian Duck, Hawaiian Stilt, Hawaiian Coot, Hawaiian Moorhen, and the Hawaiian Short-eared Owl. Hawaii’s Division of Forestry and Wildlife (DOFAW) is the state agency charged with species protection. A wind developer can create a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) for its facility, which analyzes the potential for “take” at a project and prescribes a variety of conservation measures on site and elsewhere in order to offset incidental take by developing predator patrol, fencing, wetland and upland habitat restoration and vegetation maintenance to help species population thrive overall.
“Under state law each project is required to ensure that the mitigation provided results in a ‘net conservation benefit’ for each species,” said First Wind’s Dave Cowan, vice president of environmental affairs, via email interview. “We report all takes to DOFAW and USFWS as a matter of permit compliance.”
Currently, Honolulu’s Land Use Ordinance requires that all wind machines be set back from the property line a minimum distance equal to the height of the system. In the case of First Wind’s Kawailoa operation, the developer built at least 500 feet away from residential property lines. None of the operational wind facilities in Hawaii faced opposition prior to construction, according to Henry Curtis, who sits on HECO’s Integrated Resource Planning Advisory Group and is executive director for Life of the Land.
Five industrial wind projects are currently in proposal and planning stages–four are facing opposition. Proposed wind projects on Lanai, Molokai and West Maui connected with the proposed inter-island cable (an undersea cable that would be constructed to deliver wind power generated from these locations to power grids on Oahu) face community resistance. A proposed wind farm above the Kahe Generating Station has faced opposition from Ko Olina, former Mayor Peter Carlisle and cultural practitioners. “The other site brought up from time to time is Oahu’s Kaena Point, which would never happen due to environmental, cultural and preservation issues,” Curtis said in an email interview.
Controversy is flaring up from some North Shore residents who feel they were not informed of the newly completed Kawailoa project. In a North Shore neighborhood board meeting in November, a representative from First Wind was confronted by some residents who were especially disturbed by the red lights on the turbines that flash all night and the proximity with which the turbines loomed in their backyards in Pupukea. First Wind admitted that its outreach efforts had only contacted one Pupukea resident.
“A wind farm’s life is 20 years. The machines won’t last much more than 20 years,” says Wren Wescoatt, First Wind’s Development Manager, standing beneath a Kawailoa turbine. “They wear out.” Therefore, the lease agreements and utility contracts for wind operations are usually 20 years. Currently, decommissioning (removal) is not required by law and is strictly part of an agreement between a landowner and developer, if at all. A bill (HB 1149) currently moving through the state House would create a relationship between a wind farm developer and the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism to require a suitable financial instrument be available to ensure decommissioning of a wind farm at the end of its life.
First Wind leases 335 acres of land from Kamehameha Schools for its Kawailoa operation. Kamehameha Schools has invested $10 million in water infrastructure improvements and $1.4 million to fence the land around the wind farm in order to devote 4,000 surrounding acres for cattle grazing, 10 acres for a new cacao farm and hundreds of acres to organic farming. “Income from the wind project allows for further water and infrastructure improvements to be made in order to sustain agricultural operations at Kawailoa Plantation,” said Kapu Smith, Kawailoa Plantation’s senior land manager, via email.
Despite the mantra of sustainability, any source of energy production is going to take a toll on the environment. The low power density of wind means that large amounts of land are needed, as well as large resource inputs of steel and concrete. Progression then becomes a balancing act. Asked how we offset ecological costs to wildlife and millions of pounds of steel and concrete on ag land, Glick pointed to HCPs and the fact that some land surrounding wind farms can be used for livestock and farming. “In some cases, revenue from the wind farm actually allows the landowner to improve the agricultural infrastructure on-site,” he added.
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