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House bill aims to set buffer zone on wind turbine projects

Lawmakers are scheduled to take up a bill Wednesday that would set a buffer between residential or business properties and wind turbines.

House Bill 1384 requires a buffer of three-quarters of a mile between properties and any wind turbines, keeping turbines from being built near a residence, school, hospital or business.

While lawmakers said the measure is necessary to keep residents safe, wind project developers and renewable energy advocates worry the bill would stop renewable energy development.

Despite the industry opposition, state Rep. Cynthia Thielen (R, Kailua-Kaneohe Bay) said she thinks the bill or at least the concept will pass the House.

“There is strong support in the House for buffer zones for the benefit of residents and schoolchildren,” Thielen said.

The buffer of three-quarters of a mile was necessary as the noise of the large-scale projects would be disruptive to schoolchildren, Thielen said.

There are currently seven utility-scale wind farms feeding power to Hawaiian Electric Co., with two on Hawaii island and three on Maui. There are two wind farms on Oahu, both owned by Belmont, Calif.-based Sun Edison and located on the North Shore. The 69-megawatt Kawailoa Wind project northeast of Haleiwa was completed in November 2012, and the 30-megawatt Kahuku Wind farm was completed in March 2011.

A third 24-megawatt wind project on Oahu, the second wind facility in Kahuku, would be operated by Na Pua Makani Power Partners, a subsidiary of a Southern California wind energy development company, Champlin/GEI Wind Holdings LLC.

The Na Pua Makani Power Partners wind farm would be located approximately 2,000 feet, almost half the distance required in the bill, from Kahuku’s Mauka Village neighborhood. Three-quarters of a mile is 3,960 feet.

Because of the advanced stage of the project, Mike Cutbirth, president and CEO at Champlin, said the bill could bring plans to a halt.

“We consider this a bill to try and kill our project,” Cutbirth said. “It is really something that, to us, is very project specific.”

Na Pua Makani made it a point from the outset to listen to the community’s concerns and respond to them, Cutbirth said. His company had changed the location of the wind turbines multiple times to address feedback from the community.

“We don’t have a lot of additional leeway,” he said. “We have moved them not once, but a half a dozen times.”

Studies conducted for an environmental impact statement have found that Kahuku residents will not be able to hear the turbines, said Cutbirth.

“There is no safety risk based on where we put those turbines,” Cutbirth said.

Henry Curtis, executive director of Life of the Land, and environmental and community action group, and proponent of HB 1384, said Na Pua Makani is an intrusive wind system.

In testimony, Life of the Land suggested the bill should also provide communities the power to determine whether large renewable energy projects are approved, and suggested the wind projects affected by the bill should be 50 kilowatts or larger. The bill does not set a minimum size for turbines.

“In Makiki, for example, there are small micro wind turbines on residential houses,” Curtis said. “If you applied it to everything, you wouldn’t allow rooftop wind.”

The Blue Planet Foundation, a clean energy nonprofit, said wind turbines and property lines were not properly defined in the bill.

“It is really restrictive and vague,” said Jeff Mikulina, executive director of Blue Planet Foundation.

“Clean energy options should not be prematurely taken off the table,” said the Hawaii-based nonprofit in a testimony. “At a minimum, regulations governing wind turbines should take into account variations in equipment and communities, rather than imposing a blanket ban.”