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Residents and policymakers battle over Hawaii wind energy projects

Concerns about renewable energy projects are spreading from street protests to the halls of lawmaking bodies, as state and local legislators are considering measures that could hinder the ability to build the solar and wind farms needed for the state to meet its clean energy goals.

Both the Hawaii Legislature and the Honolulu City Council were considering measures that restrict the placement of wind farms, such as AES Corp.’s controversial Na Pua Makani project in Kahuku on Oahu’s North Shore. The Legislature suspended its session for a few weeks and the City Council took the measure off its agenda in the face of the coronavirus threat now engulfing Hawaii.

But with Hawaiian Electric Co. still scheduled to unveil a slew of new projects in May, there’s a looming question of whether some of those projects will trigger widening protests over other types of projects, leading policymakers to respond to constituents with additional measures.

Already, the protests are driving developers away. On Tuesday, Eurus Energy America announced it was pulling the plug on its proposed Palehua wind farm on Oahu.

“The risk factors associated with developing wind projects in Hawaii were deemed too great for us to proceed,” the company said in announcing the decision. Eurus said it will continue to operate its Eurus Waianae Solar Plant.

Hawaii’s energy law requires all electricity sold in the state to be produced from renewable resources by 2045, and some worry that ongoing opposition could make it hard to reach that goal. Others suggest Hawaii should reconsider its energy policy if communities strenuously object and decide they don’t like the policy after all.

The AES project, for instance, is moving forward despite opposition from residents that dates back a decade, said state Sen. Gil Riviere, whose district includes Kahuku. Riviere said a critical issue is that the permitting and approval process for projects allows little room for public input to stop a project that a community opposes.

“Unless that changes, I don’t think this is the last time that’s going to be a controversy,” Riviere said.

“It’s a concern, for sure,” Jeff Mikulina, executive director of the Blue Planet Foundation which promotes renewable energy, said about the opposition to Na Pua Makani. “And it’s really, really unfortunate that the developer kind of really screwed up on the North Shore.

“The good news,” Mikulina added, “is we don’t see a lot of the pushback from projects that just kind of go through quietly. By and large, mostly smaller projects have done that. There hasn’t been a lot of pushback on those.”

AES, the developer of the North Shore project, responded to an interview request with a one-sentence statement saying, “AES looks forward to continue working with the people of Hawai‘i toward a future where locally produced renewable energy powers communities across the state.”

While the proposed measures show policymakers are responding to public concerns, none pose an immediate problem for AES’ project, or any others. For example, a House bill that would have created a 1-mile setback between windmills and farm houses on agriculture land was amended in the Senate to let the wind energy projects be set up closer to dwellings.

“It’s a concern, for sure,” Jeff Mikulina, executive director of the Blue Planet Foundation which promotes renewable energy, said about the opposition to Na Pua Makani. “And it’s really, really unfortunate that the developer kind of really screwed up on the North Shore.

“The good news,” Mikulina added, “is we don’t see a lot of the pushback from projects that just kind of go through quietly. By and large, mostly smaller projects have done that. There hasn’t been a lot of pushback on those.”

AES, the developer of the North Shore project, responded to an interview request with a one-sentence statement saying, “AES looks forward to continue working with the people of Hawai‘i toward a future where locally produced renewable energy powers communities across the state.”

While the proposed measures show policymakers are responding to public concerns, none pose an immediate problem for AES’ project, or any others. For example, a House bill that would have created a 1-mile setback between windmills and farm houses on agriculture land was amended in the Senate to let the wind energy projects be set up closer to dwellings.