The landscape of the Big Wind project has been shaken and where the pieces fall remains to be seen.
The state’s most ambitious renewable energy project, which aimed to bring wind energy from Lanai and Molokai to support 20 percent of Oahu’s electricity needs, may not be just about wind anymore. And half of the project may not be sited on Molokai.
The state recently disclosed that the project’s $3 million environmental assessment will now look at the potential of geothermal and solar sources throughout Maui County.
This follows a recent PUC ruling requiring Hawaiian Electric Co. to issue a new RFP for at least 200 megawatts of renewable energy, which could encompass a range of sources. Proposed projects can be sited on any island that can reach Oahu through an undersea cable, or Oahu itself.
The developments follow four years of project planning and approximately $7.4 million in studies on the inter-island wind project. The expanded scope of the project is expected to add additional costs and time to the EIS, and the new RFP could prolong any comprehensive project from moving forward.
“It’s obviously a setback in terms of time,” said Hawaiian Electric spokesman Peter Rosegg. “We have to see who comes across the threshold.”
The part of the project left intact is Castle & Cooke’s proposed 200 mw wind farm on Lanai, but it’s not a sure thing. Castle & Cooke still has to gain PUC approval for a power purchase agreement with Hawaiian Electric, along with a community benefits package. The developer must also complete an environmental review and obtain numerous permits. All of this in the midst of vocal opposition among groups on Lanai, and what some observers see as escalating divisions within the community. In recent months the local union on Lanai has taken a stronger position in favor of the wind farm.
“Definitely, people can feel the tension,” said Butch Gima, a board member of Lanaians for Sensible Growth, an established community organization that opposes the project.
Maui County has maintained that any support of the Lanai project is contingent on a much more robust community benefits package than what was initially proposed by Hawaiian Electric and Castle & Cooke.
Castle & Cooke’s proposed 200 mw wind farm is also likely to need a corresponding project in order for the cost of the energy to be competitive with oil. What this project could look like is no longer clear, but Hawaiian Electric could receive a motley of proposals, and interest in siting the projects on Maui appears strong.
“It will be very interesting to see who bids,” said Jeff Mikulina, executive director of Blue Planet Foundation, a nonprofit focused on clean energy. While he said that the wind resource on Molokai was phenomenal, there was also potential for geothermal and wind on Maui. And new technologies that have yet to surface could come into the picture.
Pattern Energy has teamed up with Biological Capital to build a wind farm on Molokai. It has an agreement with Molokai Ranch and has affirmed its commitment to the Molokai project.
But local resistance to the project on Molokai has been loud, and Maui is looking like an increasingly viable candidate for hosting some form of energy project.
First Wind, the original developer for the Molokai site, and the state’s most prolific wind developer, has been pushing for Maui to be included as a potential site. Up until recently, the developer appeared to be shut out of the project after representatives failed to negotiate a land deal with Molokai Ranch. Pattern Energy subsequently stepped in.
First Wind is currently expanding its wind farm on the leeward side of Maui, but it faces having the energy curtailed because the utility can’t accept all that it produces. This energy, as well as expanded projects, could be fed into the Oahu grid, via a cable.
“Interconnecting Maui to Oahu would allow existing and planned renewable projects on Maui to be more fully utilized,” said John LaMontaigne, a spokesman for First Wind, who added that in addition to its wind resources, Maui had strong potential for geothermal energy and biomass.
There’s also been renewed excitement about the potential for ocean thermal energy conversion, which exploits the temperature differential between cold deep seawater and warmer surface water to drive a turbine. But, according to Makai Ocean Engineering, which has been working on the development of the technology since the 1970s, it would be premature to bid on the RFP. The technology, which has never been commercialized, still requires further environmental tests, and is struggling with financing.
Darren Kimura, CEO of solar company Sopogy, said that his company was in active discussions with a number of potential partners, and was exploring a combined proposal of its concentrated solar thermal energy technology, with geothermal and biomass projects.
While the Big Wind project has struggled, Hawaiian Electric’s mandate to switch to 40 percent renewable energy by 2030 remains. In recent months this pressure has intensified as political disruptions in the Middle East have caused spikes in oil prices, and alarm within the state, which relies on oil for 90 percent of its energy needs.
“I just hope that things move along expeditiously,” said Rosegg. “I’m confident that everyone realizes the importance of this.”