MOLOKAI — Sen. Mike Gabbard steps off the plane onto the windy tarmac of the island airport. Almost immediately, he is surrounded by a group of local residents spoiling for a political fight.
A handful of photographers move in close, their cameras clicking to capture the images of what may well prove to be a defining moment for this island community.
Gabbard, two other state lawmakers and a few political aides have come to Molokai to hear what residents have to say about Big Wind, a proposed 200-megawatt wind farm that has sparked emotional protest on the island that is home to about 7,400 people.
But this is an ambush, not a welcome. The Molokai activists are there to make sure Gabbard and his entourage know that practically no one on the island wants Big Wind.
Before the long day is over, the legislators, who flew in from Honolulu, will hear dozens of residents voice their anger about the proposal to install 70 wind turbines on the west coast of Molokai and transmit electricity to Oahu via an undersea cable. Developers hope to combine a Molokai wind farm with a similar 200-megawatt project on Lanai, where lawmakers will travel the next day on a similar fact-finding mission. At stake is a bill pending before the Legislature that could be crucial to financing the undersea cable. Without the cable, there will be no wind farms.
Together, the two wind farms could supply up to 20 percent of the electricity needs of Oahu, where the bulk of Hawaii’s population lives and works. They are at the heart of a state initiative to get Hawaii off oil-fired generation and on to a renewable energy program that is seen as better for consumers and the economy.
But this is not Oahu and most on Molokai clearly do not want to fuel Oahu’s electric use. Among the complaints lawmakers will hear: Big Wind would desecrate the land, be an affront to the native culture, harm the environment and pose health risks. On top of that, some say, it is a huge scam, an example of corporate greed and will only feed Oahu’s excessive demand for air conditioning and everything electric. Only a couple of residents voice tepid support for the project.
The group at the airport has been camped out since 6 this morning. They had planned to catch the legislators as they met executives from Molokai Renewables, the wind farm developer, for a tour of the proposed site. But the thought of company reps shepherding lawmakers around the island inflamed local tempers in the days leading up to the visit, especially since I Aloha Molokai, an anti-wind group that has grown to more than 300 local residents, also asked to lead the tour but had been rebuffed.
But, unbeknownst to the opposition group, legislators had canceled the tour with Molokai Renewables to avoid conflict, and had decided to set out on their own.
Soon, with the wind farm developer nowhere in sight, I Aloha Molokai is leading the way. The ambush has morphed into more of a welcoming party – with hugs, group photos and the offer of soda crackers in case the visitors are hungry.
The lawmakers load into a white van, roll up the windows and blast the air conditioning. They are flanked by the local escorts, the caravan increasing in size as the tour continues. The locals leave their windows open to the Molokai breeze.
With Kanohowailuku Helm of I Aloha Molokai pointing the way in his red truck, the caravan rolls out of the airport and past a sign that greeted lawmakers: “No Undersea Cable. No Industrial Wind Farm.”
If Molokai Renewables and Hawaiian Electric Co. succeed in convincing the Public Utilities Commission that a Molokai wind farm is good for the state, dozens of towering generators with huge spinning blades would be put up on land owned by Molokai Ranch.
Helm takes the lawmakers to the scene — fields covered with tall golden-hued grass that open up onto expansive views of a sparkling blue ocean. Cattle are raised here, and deer graze.
“It’s the beautiful wild, wild west, that’s what it is,” says Helm. “It’s the land we were born and raised with and are so used to seeing the way that it is.”
The four-year project has had a torturous path. The initial wind developer, Boston-based First Wind, failed to win over a significant portion of the community and secure land for the project from Molokai Ranch. It ultimately missed a deadline imposed by state regulators who required the company to show it had gotten control of the site.
That ignited the wrath of Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who threatened to seize the property using the eminent domain process. Molokai Ranch picked Pattern Energy as its preferred wind farm developer. Pattern recently changed its name to Molokai Renewables.
But if the community meetings on Molokai are any indication, Big Wind is not going to be an easy sell, no matter what the company is called.
Byron Espaniola jumps on the picnic table outside the Maunaloa post office where legislators and about 50 residents are convened. He is a passionate speaker and at one point calls for a vote on the project. Nearly everyone raies their hand in opposition to the wind farm.
“It’s a stand against greed!” Espaniola yells to the crowd. “It’s a stand against injustice! It’s a stand against things we don’t stand for!”
There are no Walmarts, chain grocery stores or large resorts on Molokai. There’s not even a traffic light. And residents say they want it to stay that way.
It’s the anti-Oahu, a stark contrast to the hotels that line Waikiki’s packed beaches and high-rise buildings that span Honolulu’s skyline.
Hawaiian Electric Co., the state’s largest utility, and state officials believe that sources of energy on neighbor islands — like wind power — are necessary to supply the energy needs of Oahu, where 75 percent of the state’s population lives. So the fate of Big Wind is just as important to Oahu as it is to Molokai and Lanai.
But on Molokai at least, the thought of building roads through farm land that would then be marked by concrete pads and 400-foot-tall windmills for the sake of slaking Oahu’s thirst for power isn’t going over well.
“Oahu right now, every night, lights up that sky. Lights it up – to the point when sometimes it looks like it’s on fire!” says Janeel Hew. She is among the crowd gathered at the post office to talk with legislators.
“The only thing green about the windmills is the money factor,” she says.
The economy has suffered statewide in the past few years, and in Maunaloa nearly 70 percent of residents live below the poverty line, according to recent census data.
But some say the statistic masks another reality on Molokai — half the population is Native Hawaiian and nearly 30 percent of all food for families is acquired through subsistence fishing, hunting and farming.
“They’ve said over and over again that they want a subsistence culture, with some cash coming in,” Sen. Kalani English tells Civil Beat. A Hana resident and vice chair of the Senate Committee on Energy and the Environment, he represents Molokai, where he has many relatives.
“They don’t want the cash economy,” English says.
Jimmy Duvauchelle, a cattle farmer who worked for Molokai Ranch for 40 years, takes in abused children at his home. He says his electric bill runs $700 a month and, with little money from cattle, living off the land is not so easy. He’s open to the idea of the wind farm.
“I’m glad to have resources from the land to the sea,” Duvauchelle tells Civil Beat. “But you have a hard time buying diapers with deer meat.”
But Duvauchelle is a lonely voice, and isn’t quite the “silent majority” that lawmakers had said before leaving Honolulu they wanted to make sure they heard from.
If there is a pro-wind faction on Molokai, they remained silent.
Near the end of the day, the caravan rolls into its final meeting at the Mitchell Pauole Center in Kaunakakai. About 50 people line the cafeteria-style tables at the town’s department of parks and recreation, some of them continuing on the trip even though they’d been at previous meetings.
Cora Schnackenberg greets the politicians and staffers as they enter the center. But she’s no fan of Big Wind, especially if it means propping up Oahu on the back of Molokai.
She recalls state officials once asking Molokai residents: “If you had mangoes growing in your backyard, wouldn’t you want to share them?”
What she’d rather know, she tells lawmakers, is “not whether or not I want to share. I want to know what happened to their mangoes.”
Molokai tour – slideshow: