If proponents of the Big Wind project want to send 400 megawatts of energy from Molokai and Lanai back to Honolulu, they’re going to have to give residents of those quiet islands a lot more than they’ve already offered.

That sentiment — offered by State Sen. J. Kalani English, who has both Molokai and Lanai in his district — had opponents of the development grumbling at a Senate hearing Tuesday that it was as if years of environmental reviews were already in the rearview mirror instead of standing in the way of the proposal.

English, who is vice chair of the Senate’s Energy and Environment Committee, was joined by committee Chair Mike Gabbard and Commerce and Consumer Protection Chair Rosalyn Baker. They listened to presentations by, and then asked questions of, Castle and Cooke and First Wind, who are working to provide electricity via 200-megawatt wind farms on Lanai and Molokai, respectively.

Also making presentations at the hearing were representatives of the Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism’s Energy Office; Hawaiian Electric Company; Lanaians for Sensible Growth; Friends of Lanai; Hui Hoopakele Aina; Molokai Community Service Council; and the U.S. Department of Energy.

To review the presentations, click here [pdf].

Much of the conversation focused on a proposed community benefit package put forward by HECO and Castle and Cooke for the Lanai portion of the project last week.

The benefits included electric rates for Lanai residents to match those of Oahu; contributions of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to community projects like preserving a watershed and improving the water system; and assurances that Lanai would have 100 percent renewable electricity within 20 years.

“It’s a great starting point,” English said, but the “zone of possible agreement” is far higher than the first offer. He said the community is going to be asking for things that may not seem possible, but that Castle and Cooke needs to find a way to make a reality.

English said that while Lanai and Molokai residents need to prepare themselves for the possibility that the wind projects are going to happen, the developers need to be ready for the possibility that they won’t.

Proponents said their offer showed they had listened to concerns from the community during dozens of meetings on the neighbor islands. Opponents scoffed that the concessions aren’t nearly enough to make up for permanently scarring the landscape on Hawaii’s most rural and sacred islands by turning them into little more than an industrial plant for Honolulu.

Baker said she could argue that “it’s too awful to do to Lanai. We’re asking too much of them.” She said that concessions to the host communities should include not only payments but also stronger efforts to mitigate the harm by researching alternative technologies and techniques that won’t put such a heavy burden on the small islands.

HECO executive vice president Robbie Alm acknowledged the perception that the proposal would install “large industrial systems for the benefit of someone else.” But he and others said that the project is critical as the state moves toward its goal of having 40 percent of its energy come from renewable sources by 2030.

Martha Evans of Friends of Lanai said while the goal of the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative is noble, those ends don’t justify the means.

“This development is forever. Lanai will never be the same,” said Robin Kaye, one of Evans’ colleagues on Friends of Lanai.

Walter Ritte of Hui Hoopakele Aina, a Molokai group opposed to the windmills, asked rhetorically if wind would become just another commodity instead of the cultural resource it is to the Hawaiian people.

He said the community benefits package offered to Lanai reminded him of Captain Cook offering the first Hawaiians he encountered one nail at a time as they provided his men with supplies. He said the community needs to be treated as an equal partner and that merely sharing 1 percent of profits is not going to cut it.

The Molokai half of the equation seems much less settled, and the developer seems to be playing its hand less aggressively. Unlike Castle and Cooke, First Wind does not own the land it would build on, is still working with Molokai Ranch on terms, and might end up somewhere else if the sides can’t reach an agreement.

If one project fails, turbines to produce all 400 megawatts could be placed on just one island.

Wren Wescoatt, a First Wind representative who hails from Molokai, said the project would not move forward unless the community wants it.

“Molokai is the Friendly Isle, not always the consensus isle,” Wescoatt laughed.

Gabbard closed the meeting by committing to visits to Molokai and Lanai to engage the community further.

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