On a recent morning, Sunny Unga, a community activist fighting the presence of a wind farm surrounding her community, stood on the playground of Kahuku Elementary School and showed off the view.
In one direction, not far in the distance, a phalanx of a dozen white wind turbines towered on the verdant lands of Oahu’s North Shore. Closer by were two clusters of four windmills each, which make up AES Corp.’s Na Pua Makani project.
Each windmill is as tall as a 40-story building, including several towering over the school. At 568-feet high with blades the wingspan of a passenger jet, the biggest is only about 1,800 feet from the school.
The tiny, rural town of Kahuku, perhaps best known for its stellar high school football team and roadside shrimp trucks, is nearly surrounded by windmills.
Unga, who has three kids attending the school, outlined the concerns she and many other residents have: chiefly about noise, flickering shadows, and safety risks of a blade falling off – which happened on Maui – that combine to make the wind farms a nuisance to many residents.
“We hope to provide an overall picture,” says Unga, who provided a preview of tours planned for Honolulu City Council members and their staff in the coming days. “All these different impacts accumulate.”
In a move that could have significant implications for where wind farms are located on Oahu, the Honolulu City Council is considering three bills that would increase the distance that large wind turbines must be set back from other properties. One requires larger windmills to be set back at least 1.25 miles from residential properties; another at least 1,500 feet or twice the system height, whichever is greater, from all property lines; and the third at least 5 miles from all property lines.
“It is beyond comprehension why this small town of Kahuku has to deal with this,” said Honolulu City Council member Heidi Tsuneyoshi, who represents the town and who has sponsored a bill that she said seeks to ensure other communities do not suffer the same sort of impact. “This was a wake-up call as far as saying enough is enough.”
Tsuneyoshi sponsored the 5-mile set back, while the others were sponsored by Council Chairman Tommy Waters at the request of the Planning Commission.
Kahuku’s experience and the City Council’s response underscores a broader problem facing Hawaii. As the state pushes to produce all its electricity from renewable resources by 2045, it’s increasingly apparent that projects will encroach upon communities that don’t want them.
It is also apparent that policymakers and company executives will have to find a way to navigate community concerns if they want their projects to move forward – and that local government officials are willing to step up to make life harder for the energy firms if residents call for it.
One major issue involves community engagement.
In the case of Na Pua Makani, Tsuneyoshi says, what drove her to sponsor the setback bill is that the developer simply did not heed community concerns. Although the project developer held community meetings, Tsuneyoshi said the developer didn’t adequately respond to what people had to say, despite a decade of steady opposition from residents who said Kahuku was already taking on more than its fair share of the burden with the 12-turbine wind farm that was already operating.
In a last-ditch effort after years of working through the system, residents blocked the road leading to one of the project sites during a monthslong series of protests that led to more than 160 arrests.
In a statement, AES said it modified the project to address community concerns. “In response to community feedback, the number of turbines was reduced and their locations were adjusted so they are setback further from homes,” said Sandra Larsen, AES’s Hawaii market business leader.
To opponents like Unga, this raises a more troubling question: As imposing as it is now, what would the project look like if AES had done what it originally wanted to do?
“The process is flawed,” Tsuneyoshi said. “That’s the problem I have.”
To Tsuneyoshi, the way to protect the public is to impose setback requirements by law. Although she sponsored the most onerous five-mile setback bill, she said she sees the 1.25-mile bill as a compromise measure.
Others agree. A case in point is Scott Glenn, head of the Hawaii State Energy Office, who is in charge of helping make sure Hawaii meets its green energy goals by 2045. Glenn did not respond to a request for comment. However, in testimony commenting on the three bills, Glenn called for a nuanced approach, settling on the 1.25-mile setback bill as the best option.
The 1,500-foot setback proposal simply wouldn’t be adequate to protect some homes, schools, businesses and emergency shelters, Glenn wrote. And he specifically urged council members to “work with local Kahuku residents to tour the homes and schools experiencing direct impacts from the existing turbines.”
Glenn testified that it’s unclear what impact a blanket 1.25-mile rule would have on the ability to site wind farms on Oahu. Meanwhile, he said, the 5-mile setback would have a profound effect, “eliminating the potential for development in areas that are remote from residential areas and are actually appropriate for wind energy projects.”
Hawaiian Electric said it is trying to foster meaningful community engagement. As Hawaiian Electric’s director of community affairs, Kurt Tsue helps establish the community engagement requirements that are part of the power purchase contracts the utility enters to buy power from wind and solar farms.
Tsue said in an interview that the public participation process was not as strong when the Na Pua Makani project started its planning process a decade ago. Hawaiian Electric has changed that by requiring not simply community engagement during all phases of the project but also a plan showing community concerns and the developer’s efforts to address the concerns.
In its testimony on the City Council bills, Hawaiian Electric reiterated its commitment to community engagement and called on balancing that input with the state’s need to reach its clean energy goals. While Hawaiian Electric took no stance on the City Council measures, the company did testify that “depending on the proposal adopted, there is a possibility that the potential for future land-based wind energy development on the island of Oahu will be severely restricted.”
Others are taking a clearer line against the City Council measures.
Ulupono Initiative, which invests in renewable energy and agriculture in Hawaii, voiced concerns that the setbacks would hinder new wind projects, which are a source of clean, relatively inexpensive electricity that can help drive down Hawaii’s high cost of living.
Micah Munekata, Ulupono’s director of government affairs, did not respond to requests for comment. But in testimony Munekata noted that alternatives to wind could prove more controversial.
“Should land-based renewable wind energy generation be limited and/or restricted, Oahu will undoubtedly be forced to consider other potentially controversial alternative options to meet the State’s 100% RPS goal,” he wrote. “These options could include off-shore wind projects and increasing utility-scale solar energy projects on the island’s most productive agricultural land.”
Company Says Impacts Are Minimal
Standing on a hill above the elementary school, Unga offers a close-up view of one of the windmills. The three white, propeller-like blades push the air with a monotonous sound, like mechanical ocean waves.
In truth, the sound wasn’t much louder than the ambient morning noise: the twitter and call of birds and the wind blowing through the trees and California grass.
And that’s part of the challenge of telling the story, Unga says.
At a given moment, the turbine might not seem loud, she says, but that changes depending on the time of day and wind direction. The same goes for flickering shadows that bounce into homes; they are worst in certain seasons and times of day.
She accurately predicts what AES will say, because she has heard it before: The project produces minimal noise, the company said in a statement, and low-frequency “infrasound” hasn’t been shown to harm health; rhythmic flickering shadows known to be caused by windmills occurs mostly within the wind farm site; and “independent studies conducted around the world, including the U.S., have consistently found no evidence that wind projects cause any negative physical health effects.”
Unga expresses skepticism, as do others. People say flickering shadows have caused annoying strobe effects in their homes, she said, and at times they can hear the windmills from as much as a mile away. Unga pointed to other studies showing harmful effects, as well as the alarming report of a hub and blades falling off a windmill on Maui.
But such arguments miss the overarching point.
“We said, ‘No. Too big. Too close,” she says, recalling concerns the community voiced. “And yet this still happens.”
Tsuneyoshi agrees. The wishes of the community simply were ignored, she says. And she said she wants to change that.
“I want this to come to a conclusion that shows their voices were heard,” Tsuneyoshi said.
The Ulupono Initiative was founded by Pierre and Pam Omidyar. Pierre Omidyar is the CEO and publisher of Civil Beat.
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