It sounds simple.

Towering wind turbines on Molokai and Lanai send electric power via undersea cable to Oahu. The technology has been tested elsewhere. We know it will produce clean, renewable energy. And it would reduce Hawaii’s dependence on foreign oil. Just what government leaders say they want.

But it turns out that the state’s most ambitious renewable energy project, called “Big Wind,” has raised a torrent of big questions.

Big Wind, also known as Interisland Wind, would produce 400 megawatts of power, or roughly one-sixth of the state’s current consumption.

The project, prescribed as part of the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative in 2008, includes four major components:

  • A state-funded undersea power cable that will connect Oahu to Molokai, Lanai and potentially Maui
  • Hawaiian Electric Company’s development of landing sites, converter stations, transmission lines, and Oahu grid improvements
  • Castle & Cooke’s 200-megawatt wind farm on Lanai
  • First Wind Hawaii’s 200-megawatt wind farm on Molokai

What makes it especially complicated is that each party is responsible for obtaining the necessary permits, environmental impact studies and approval from the Public Utilities Commission for their individual project components. So what happens, for example, if the undersea cable isn’t approved, but the wind farms are? There would be no channel of distribution, and it’s far too much power to integrate into the small-capacity grids on Lanai and Molokai. Or what if the cable is approved, but one of the wind farms gets derailed? Or what if everything else progresses as planned, but problems arise integrating the power into Oahu’s grid?

The project reveals the complex challenge of making the shift from an oil-dependent society to one based on sustainable energy, while respecting and protecting the unique environmental and cultural characteristics of the islands.

Since Gov. Linda Lingle announced the players in the Big Wind initiative in 2009, the four stakeholders have achieved varying degrees of progress and encountered distinct challenges. The most logical way to untangle this web of projects and get at the significant questions they raise is to look at each separately. But first, it’s important to understand the reason why Big Wind was mandated in the first place.

Why Big Wind

“Why are we in this?” HECO executive vice president Robbie Alm asked at a public information session on Lanai. “We’re in it because Hawaii is absolutely addicted to oil.”

The figures are stark and oft-cited. Oil accounts for 90 percent of Hawaii’s energy needs—dominated by electricity and transportation. Some of that oil comes from U.S.-refined product and crude oil from Alaska, but 75% of it is imported from other countries. Hawaii relies on fossil fuels more than any other state, spending between $6 and $7 billion a year (subject to fluctuating barrel prices), and the cost of electricity in Hawaii is more than double the U.S. average. For every 10 percent increase in world oil prices, there is a 0.5 percent reduction in the state’s GDP. On top of that, our combustion of fuel contributes 24 million tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. California emits 403 million tons of carbon—17 times Hawaii’s output, but California has 26 times more people.

“When we spend that money to buy oil—$6.2 billion against $61-and-change billion as a gross state product—we’re hurting ourselves,” Alm continued, explaining how Hawaii’s economic security is inextricably tied to our energy security. Congresswoman Mazie Hirono echoed the urgency in her Independence Day essay published on Civil Beat, pleading, “We can’t afford to live like this any longer.”

Perhaps Blue Planet Foundation’s Jeff Mikulina illustrates the looming danger of our dependence on oil most vividly. Hawaii, he offers, is “one supertanker away from being Amish.”

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