- Special Projects
Big Wind may as well be called Big If.
A “listening tour” earlier this month by a small group of lawmakers to neighbor islands where wind farms might be built seems to have done little to move the project forward or tell legislators anything they didn’t already know.
Molokai is still overwhelmingly against a wind farm and Lanai is still split between people who see it as an economic opportunity and people who see it as disrupting the island lifestyle.
The cornerstone of the state’s big plans to switch from oil-fired power to renewable sources, Big Wind has been in the works since 2008. Its goal is to power up to 20 percent of Oahu’s electricity needs.
Big Wind has generally been envisioned as two facilities on Molokai and Lanai, with the power generated by the giant windmills shipped to Oahu via an undersea cable. But after three years it is still struggling to overcome political problems and financial uncertainty.
One big if is where Big Wind will be built. Molokai now seems to be out of play. Lanai is still an option but the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission recently opened the bidding process to include more possibilities. Maui might now propose a wind farm of its own. And other renewable energy projects, like solar, could also be in the mix.
Another big if involves the undersea cable. Who would build it and how will they pay for it? The Legislature has been trying to head off problems financing the estimated $1 billion project by putting in place a process that would assure any cable developer a guaranteed return on its investment in order to woo lenders. But global economic conditions are so tenuous that it could be tough to attract financing for an undersea cable project in Hawaii at acceptable rates.
Cable bills that stalled in the House and Senate committees earlier this year are one reason reason Sen. Mike Gabbard and Rep. Denny Coffman took other legislators and a few political aides to Molokai and Lanai last month. As chairs of the Senate and House energy and environment committees, the two have a big say in Big Wind, especially when it comes to the cable bill. Without the undersea cable, there can be no wind farms.
The bill, Senate Bill 367, would essentially give the PUC authority over a new cable utility, allowing the regulatory agency to oversee development, financing and construction of the cable. Hawaiian Electric Co., the state’s largest utility, could eventually take over the cable operation. But HECO executive vice president Robbie Alm told legislators in April that a private developer overseen by the PUC could build the cable at a lower cost than either the state or Hawaiian Electric, “given Hawaiian Electric’s financial rating and the State’s strained budget.”
Alm said the approach worked well in California, where developers brought power to San Francisco from a generating facility across the bay.
The Hawaii bill passed the Senate earlier this year and went through several revisions in the House but was left languishing in a conference committee when the session ended. The legislative record is full of passionate opposition to the cable project — and Big Wind overall — for all the same reasons residents articulated to lawmakers when they visited last month. They worry about environmental and visual impacts and fear it will change the lifestyle on the smaller islands, especially for Native Hawaiians.
Another big if emerged on the lawmakers’ trip when they got to Lanai. There, Castle & Cooke officials broke the news that real estate tycoon David Murdock, who has owned the island for more than 25 years, has put it up for sale. Castle & Cooke operates the island’s resorts, golf courses, dock and housing developments for Murdock. Executives told legislators they want to move ahead with Big Wind, and bid on another 200 megawatts – which would double the wind farm’s size – and may bid on the cable as well. But it’s very much up in the air what a sale might mean for Castle & Cooke’s plans.
If Lanai were to get the whole project, Big Wind might have an easier time moving forward. The company already controls the land needed for construction of the facility and developing the entire 400 megawatt wind farm and the cable could make the project more attractive to potential investors.
Gabbard and Coffman are tight-lipped about their positions on the wind farms and the cable bill. They insisted that the visits to the islands were simply to listen to what people had to say and that it will all be debated in the Legislature in a few months. Lawmakers who spent hours riding in a van together to various meetings on Molokai and Lanai didn’t even talk about the project to each other. That might have been because Civil Beat was along for the ride, but most of those who made the trip were reluctant to answer questions about Big Wind either before or after the journey.
Rep. Cynthia Thielen, a member of the House energy committee, was the only one who didn’t hesitate to declare her opposition to Big Wind. She has been against it all along and said she doesn’t think a wind farm is the right project for Lanai.
Sen. Kalani English, who represents both Molokai and Lanai, said that he doubts the Molokai project will ever be built.
Lawmakers told the neighbor island residents that they hadn’t ultimately made up their minds about it. They assured residents that they would report what they’d heard to their colleagues in the Legislature.
Big Wind is a big idea that still has big questions shrouding it, three years after it was announced as part of then-Gov. Linda Lingle‘s Clean Energy Initiative.
Now even the very idea idea of Big Wind is up in the air — demonstrating once again that it’s not easy to get major projects done in Hawaii.