Proponents of the Big Wind Project may have felt the specter of the Hawaiian-Supreme-Court-stymied Superferry fiasco over their shoulders recently during a series of public meetings to determine the scope of the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the proposed Big Wind project1 being considered as one of the potential ways to meet Hawaii’s goals of reaching 70 percent renewable energy by 2030.

The state’s Department of Business Economic Development and Tourism (DBEDT) and the federal Department of Energy wanted to hear what the neighbor islands thought about the proposal, and they got an earful from hundreds of concerned citizens, environmental experts and legal practitioners outlining many of the same shortcuts and myopic planning that doomed the previous project.

Inside The Scoping Meetings

After accepting public testimony at a single meeting on Oahu and one on Maui, residents of Moloka`i and Lana‘i — the islands being asked to host hundreds of turbines to send power by undersea cable to lighten Oahu’s power hunger — told attendees on Thursday 2/3 and on Saturday 2/5 exactly what they thought of this scheme: It’s a really, really, bad idea.

The comments from close to 50 speakers on Moloka`i and Lana‘i were overwhelmingly — and passionately — in opposition, with many speaking out specifically against the process being used to get to the required draft environmental impact statement. You can read more about this as reported in two recent Maui News articles:

For a proposal as complex, expensive, and far-reaching as this one, Hawaii usually requires one or more “project-specific” EISs, designed to explore the impacts caused by a specific project such as the wind power plant proposed for the Ka’a ahupua’a on Lana’i, and the proposed mitigation efforts that would be required to address those impacts; the same would be required for a power plant on Moloka`i, along with a separate one for the cable and infrastructure improvements on O‘ahu. Only then would a “programmatic” EIS be drafted to identify and explore the “cumulative” impacts of the proposals as a whole.  

For reasons unclear to participants, this process has been switched — the “programmatic” draft EIS will come first, leading one commenter on Moloka‘i to ask, “How can we comment on this (the overall project) without knowing what impacts will occur on our islands first?”” A resident on Lana`i said she suspected the reversal was “either a scheme to grab as much AARA/recovery funds as possible (our tax dollars) before it disappears, a stalling tactic to give Moloka’i time to get on board (First Wind is still searching for a site), or a means to avoid answering project-specific concerns and questions, while moving the process down the road in a way that too much $$ will have already been spent to stop, and it will be too late to explore any other option.”

A programmatic EIS, while used frequently on the mainland, is not usual here in Hawaii, and its use generated much negative comments and questions. Friends of Lana’i’s attorney Isaac Hall commented that the Hawaii Interisland Renewable Energy Program (HIREP) EIS notice was particularly “vague;” he cited the absence of much specific data that is already well known, such as the proposed routes for the undersea cable, the targeted landing sites on Oahu, and the location of the turbines on Lana’i. “The scope of this programmatic EIS is being subverted by factors that defeat its purpose. It’s being paid for by stimulus funds intended for “shovel ready” projects; this one is not.”

The second most frequent reaction to the State’s proposal, which one commenter called an “unacceptable” flaw, was the absence of any discussion of any alternative to “Big Wind.” Testifiers on both Lana`i and Moloka‘i wanted to know, “Where is solar, OTEC, geothermal and nuclear? Why are there no cost comparisons for ALL of these alternative? Why is it just wind or ‘no action’ at all?”

Fast Tracking Subversion of Federal Regulations and Taxpayer Appropriations?

DBEDT’s approach runs contrary to testimony provided by DOE’s Steve Lindenberg before Senator Roz Baker’s committee on 1/11 that federal (NEPA) regulations require an examination of alternatives, and testifiers were troubled that this DBEDT Preliminary Notice contains no discussion of any alternatives other than “No Action.”

Others worried that O’ahu’s energy demands will never be satisfied, and asked why the neighbor islands should be responsible for feeding the seemingly limitless power hunger of another island. “It is not our responsibility to keep O’ahu’s air conditioners running,” said a Lana’i speaker. “We banned plastic bags; when will O’ahu do this?” A Molokai speaker noted, “We have a water shortage over here on Molokai. Have we asked the State to build a pipeline so we could get Oahu’s water to us?”

And then there was cost. Many wanted to know who will pay for all this? In light of Speaker Say’s introduction of SB367 (on behalf of HECO)2 there were several questions regarding the absence of real numbers regarding potential costs. Longtime Lana’i resident Beverly Zigmond questioned why the State would spend $1 billion on a cable instead of using the money to cover 166,000 O’ahu homes with solar hot water, or 28,000 with photo-voltaic systems. Why, many asked, should one quarter of Lana’i (22,000 acres) be covered with up to 170 turbines, each 410’ tall, in exchange for supplying only 10 percent of Oahu’s electricity? Beverly asked “Why is there no discussion of reduction of demand, particularly on O’ahu?”

Several Lana’i speakers wanted more transparent information regarding the ownership of the cable, noting that at first it was supposed to be a private entity, then it was the state, and now it appears to be a vague combination of all of the above.

Another persistent question, the answer to which speakers at both the Molokai and Lana’i meetings insisted be included in the EIS, was, what exactly, is the military’s role in all this? Since one of the proposed cable landing sites is Kaneohe Marine Corps Base, and the military is a consumer of one-third of HECO’s electricity, it seemed highly improbable that the proposed industrial wind power plants would not be directly absorbed by the military, and if it were, does the entire project become a Homeland Security operation?

Lanai`’s native Hawaiians were passionate about their historic connections to the land targeted, and noted the centuries of use they have made of Kaa’s resources. Kaulana Kahoohalahala said that Ka’a, “… provides for me and my family,” and that the project “…will destroy our way of life. I depend on this ahupua’a to put food on my table and support my family. Me and my family’s emotional and spiritual well-being is tied to the well-being of these resources.” His uncle, former state Representative and Maui County Council Member Solomon Kaho’ohalahala, claimed 700 years of generational ties to the island, and spoke eloquently of storied legends directly related to the history of the Ka’a ahupua’a – land he noted was directly tied to both Kane and Pele. His conclusion: placing 170 turbines on this hallowed land would be nothing short of a desecration.

Lana`i resident Pat Reilly wanted to know what his rights are. “What rights do we have? We don’t get to vote on this project. I ask that the EIS include some exploration of the residents’ and stakeholders’ legal rights.” Resident Butch Gima brought a list of key issues for the state to address, including this one: “Come to Lana’i and talk with the fire department and the Lana’i water company and the Lana’i Water Advisory Committee” to determine if the Ka’a area, which is very dry and has no water sources, would even be a safe place to site an industrial power plant. He wanted data, “for which we’ve asked for years and years” identifying turbine noise levels, light disturbances and impacts on view planes. “The developer has said you’re not going to see very much of the proposed windmills. That’s bull….,” Butch said.

Only two people, at either meeting, spoke favorably of the proposed project. ILWU members Priscilla and Joe Felipe thought that if Castle and Cooke’s financial picture improved it might help sustain workers at the two luxury hotels on Lana`i. A subsequent testifier wondered what the connection between hotel operation, under contract to Four Seasons, and power plant profits might be.

The mood on Lana`i, while passionate, was for the most part polite. The first speaker on Moloka’i, on the other hand, encouraged participants to “walk out” and urged the state’s process be boycotted. After learning that none of those testifying would have their questions answered, she said, “…Then I am going home and watch TV.” Those who stayed expressed fear. “I’m here tonight because I’m afraid. We’re talking about a small little island that really is paradise. You’re killing our culture. We are scared that you are going to come here and destroy this place.”

And there was general concern about the viability of wind altogether. One Lana’i resident, Christine Costales, quoted a 2005 study in which Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee wrote: “These giant windmills are being built primarily because of a huge Federal taxpayer subsidy. Once those tax credits expire, taxpayers will likely have to pay a host of taxes at a higher level. These windmills may be huge, but they don’t produce much power.” The study noted that a turbine’s “capacity factor,” what it could produce if it ran 24/7, is a far cry from what it actually produces, given the intermittent nature of wind. The bottom line for Costales was that the turbines planned for Lana`i, while rated at 400 mw, will likely only provide 25 percent of that. According to numbers released by HECO, that’s a net capacity of 100 MW. Since O’ahu’s base load is 1200 MW, the state’s Big Wind project will spend close to $3 billion to supply just 10 percent of Oahu’s electric demand.

Most thought this less than a wise use of state tax and HECO ratepayer dollars.

Next up in the EIS process is when DBEDT and DOE present their draft EIS sometime in the Fall of 2011. Based on the activism and watchful engagement of participants in these few scoping meetings, Big Wind will need to have some big answers that are environmentally and financially sound to breach the growing concerns about its efficacy.

About the author: Robin Kaye is a spokesperson for Friends of Lāna‛i.

Robin lives on Lāna‛i. He is a participant in Friends of Lāna‛i, and provides consulting services to the Lāna‛i Youth Center, Lāna‛i Culture and Heritage Center, Coalition for a Drug Free Lāna‛i, and the Lāna‛i Community Health Center. He served on the Hulopoe Park Beach Council and is a member of Lanaians for Sensible Growth (LSG) and the Lāna‛i Arts Center.
Prior to returning to Hawaii, Robin was a Founding Partner in the management consulting firm of Dewey & Kaye, Inc. (DKI) Begun in 1992, DKI works with nonprofit organizations, foundations and government agencies. Robin’s work with nonprofits has involved board development, long range planning, and executive searches for foundation program staff and nonprofit executive directors. He was deeply involved in the conception, launch and implementation of a five-year, million dollar community grants program for an international corporate foundation. Robin is a certified meeting facilitator.

Before opening his own firm with Kate Dewey, Robin worked for the Hawaii State Foundation on Culture and the Arts, the California Arts Council, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.

Robin has published a book of photographs, Lanai Folks, about a vanishing lifestyle on a small agricultural island in Hawaii. Originally published in 1981, it was reprinted by the Lāna‛i Culture and Heritage Center in 2010. He has a BA from the George Washington University, and served in Peace Corps/Malaysia.

  1. In late December, 2010, the State of Hawaii released its Environmental Impact Statement/Preliminary Notice for the “Big Wind” project — the State’s plan to build 400 megawatt (MW) wind power plants on Lana’i and Molokai; all power generated would flow to O’ahu via an undersea cable:

  2. The measure reads: “…establishes a regulatory scheme for the installation and implementation of an interisland high voltage electric transmission cable system and for the construction of on-island transmission infrastructure.  Allows for the utility company to collect surcharges from its ratepayers to recover the costs of the cable installation on behalf of the cable company.  Exempts the surcharges from being counted as gross income, adjusted gross income, or taxable income for tax purposes.  Provides for the eventual acquisition of the cable system by the utility company from the cable company.  Allows the utility company to recover the costs of acquiring the cable system and developing the on island infrastructure through an automatic rate adjustment clause and then through its rates.  Allows the utility to recover the costs of pre-development and development in the event that the system is not completed.”