State regulators have approved a wind farm planned for Kahuku despite objections from members of the North Shore community and concerns from Hawaii’s consumer advocate that the developer should have completed its environmental review of the project first.

Champlin/GEI Wind Holdings, based in Santa Barbara, Calif., plans to break ground on 10 wind turbines by the end of the year, helping Hawaii meet its goals of replacing oil generation with renewable sources of energy.

The project, called Na Pua Makani, is expected to be operational sometime in 2016, said Mike Cutbirth, CEO of Champlin.

Morning at the Kahuku wind turbines.  11.20.13 ©PF Bentley/Civil Beat

First Wind’s Kahuku wind turbines. Champlin/ GEI plans to erect 10 more turbines in Kahuku.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Both the Kahuku Community Association and the Koolauloa Neighborhood Board adopted resolutions opposing the wind farm. Since 2008, 42 wind turbines have been erected on the North Shore by another developer, Boston-based First Wind, and opponents of the new facility said the area has enough turbines.

“It is really unfair that the whole town is going to be surrounded by wind turbines if this comes to pass,” said state Sen. Gil Riviere, who represents the North Shore and had supported past wind energy projects in the area

“I am very disappointed. I don’t think (regulators) are listening to the people of Kahuku. I think these decisions are being pushed along without concern for the sentiment of the people.”

This will be the second wind farm for Kahuku — First Wind built a 12-turbine wind farm there in 2011. First Wind erected another 30 turbines a mile mauka of Kamehameha Highway, known as the Kawailoa Wind Farm, in 2012.

PUC Doesn’t Wait for Environmental Review

Hawaii’s Public Utilities Commission approved the project last week despite recommendations by Jeff Ono, the Consumer Advocate, that Champlin finish its environmental impact statement for the project first. The EIS is expected to be completed by the second or third quarter of this year.

Ono noted in PUC filings that the local community had raised concerns about “aesthetics, setbacks, noise levels, environmental preservation, wildlife protection, shadow flicker, general health (especially for children), and safety.”

He said that approving the wind farm before the EIS was finished could erode community trust in the process. Furthermore, Ono said that even though there is no requirement that the PUC or his office take into account community concerns when deciding whether to approve a project, they should.

“If the EIS shows severe impacts, who is going to deny it? What if the EIS is really horrendous?” — State Sen. Gil Riviere

“Somebody has to look at what the community wants or doesn’t want in their backyard,” Ono told Civil Beat. “To me, it was a logical choice (to take the EIS into account) — that is where cultural and community concerns would be addressed.”

The PUC apparently took a more limited view of its role in approving renewable energy projects, though the final ruling said little about commissioners’ rationale.

“The EIS proceedings are designed to address different matters, in particular to address the objectives of the state’s environmental policy,” commissioners wrote in their decision, noting that there was nothing statutorily prohibiting them from approving the project prior to completion of the EIS.

Cutbirth, echoing arguments that Hawaiian Electric Co. made before the PUC during the deliberation process, said that the EIS was outside the scope of the PUC’s role and that regulatory delays could have a chilling effect on renewable energy development in Hawaii.

“If you accept one wind farm and don’t fight it, you might get a second, third and fourth.” — Henry Curtis, Life of the Land

“It’s really far beyond the scope of the PUC’s directive and role because other agencies, state and federal, are charged with the environmental review process,” said Cutbirth.

In Hawaii, environmental impact statements — extensive documents often totaling hundreds of pages — are purely advisory. The state has to accept that the documents were prepared properly.

However, the documents are often used as part of the approval process for issuing project permits. In this case, Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are expected to review the documents.

Riviere noted that only the PUC has the authority to stop a project if there are major concerns with environmental impacts — an opportunity that has now been lost.

“If the EIS shows severe impacts, who is going to deny it? What if the EIS is really horrendous? Where is the discretionary decision going to be made?” said Riviere.

Henry Curtis, executive director of Life of the Land, a nonprofit environmental and community action group, said the PUC approval sends a bad signal to the North Shore community, which in the past has been generally accepting of renewable energy projects.

“I think it sends a very, very dangerous message to the community,” Curtis said. “It says, if you accept one wind farm and don’t fight it, you might get a second, third and fourth.”

Company Promises Community Concessions

Champlin, in its filings before the PUC, said that community concerns stemming from the EIS would be addressed in a mitigation plan if necessary. The company has also agreed to move four turbines away from an area known as Cross Hill, so they will be farther from a residential neighborhood and school.

The closest turbine will now be three-quarters of a mile from Kahuku High School. Cutbirth said that the sound of the turbine will not be audible on the campus.

Cutbirth said that his company has had numerous meetings with local residents and plans to pay the community $10,000 a year per turbine as part of a community benefits package. The payments will amount to $2 million over 25 years. He said the company hasn’t decided which groups or projects will receive the funding.

Eventually, Champlin hopes to expand the wind farm if it can negotiate another deal with HECO to purchase the energy. The company initially wanted to build a 45-megawatt wind farm in Kahuku. But the project has since been scaled down to 24 megawatts. Cutbirth said that HECO would have to upgrade its transmission lines to handle more energy than the current project.

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