Hawaii moved closer Tuesday to the creation of an interisland electric grid that would be capable of transmitting renewable energy between islands.

A system of undersea cables is a top priority of Gov. Neil Abercrombie and state officials who see it as critical for achieving Hawaii’s clean energy goals.

On Tuesday, the Senate approved a measure that would help undersea cable companies attract financing for laying cables between the islands. Senate Bill 2785 will now be debated in the House. It passed with 23 senators voting in favor of it and one opposed. Eight senators who voted yes did so with reservations.

A nearly identical bill never made it out of the Legislature last year, where it got bogged down in controversy surrounding Big Wind, a project that would bring wind energy from Lanai and Molokai to Oahu. But this year, the state energy office and lawmakers have pushed hard to distance the bill from the wind farms, and move policy toward the development of energy projects such as geothermal and wind on Maui and the Big Island.

Their efforts are showing signs of success.

Sen. Kalani English, who represents Maui County which includes Molokai and Lanai, has expressed concerns with the bill in the past and been critical of the proposed wind farm on Molokai in particular, where community resistance is overwhelmingly opposed to the project. English urged his fellow senators to vote for the bill.

“In the larger scheme of things, this cable is one of the keys to our renewable future,” he said on the Senate floor Tuesday. “So in respect to my constituents on Molokai and Lanai, I vote on this with reservations. And I ask that you vote for this as well. Because without this, our renewable energy future does not exist.”

HECO Backs Off Lanai Cable

As the undersea cable bill moves forward, there are increasing signs that plans for Lanai and Molokai are being edged out.

Hawaiian Electric Co. is actively drafting a proposal request for renewable energy projects that would utilize undersea cables, at the direction of state regulators. (This is after the Molokai portion of the Big Wind project fell through — you can read more about that here.)

HECO’s original draft of the proposal, released in October, required that a renewable energy project be coupled with plans for an undersea cable — and most importantly, that the cable proposal include a route to Lanai.

The clause raised the ire of opponents of the wind farm on Lanai, most notably Robin Kaye, of Friends of Lanai which is working to kill the project.

This week, HECO said that it had struck that clause from the proposal request.

It’s important to note that a cable to Lanai is no longer a requirement — but it can still be proposed.

Ultimately, the move is a sign that HECO is making the request for proposals more amenable to renewable energy projects other than Big Wind, though HECO currently has a preliminary contract with Castle & Cooke for the Lanai wind farm.

“The feeling was that the original draft of the RFP made it a little too strict,” said Peter Rosegg, a spokesman for HECO.

Critics also charged that the original draft prohibited geothermal and solar projects.

The electric utility, which serves Oahu, the Big Island and Maui County, has also delayed the deadline for when the final plan is to be submitted to the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission for review. It is expected that it will be submitted sometime in the second quarter of the year.

Rosegg said that the utility had received inquires from several hundred companies and was still reviewing the comments and questions, which could impact the final RFP.

Opponents on Molokai and Lanai Want More

While there is waning support for the Big Wind project from key lawmakers, opponents of the project on Molokai and Lanai want greater assurance that the cables won’t be going to those islands.

Earlier in the year, lawmakers inserted language into the bill that says the wind farms would only proceed on those islands if there was community support for them.

Kanohowailuku Helm, a leader of I Aloha Molokai, which has organized several thousand residents of Molokai against the project, said that the language wasn’t strong enough.

“It doesn’t specify what a community is on Molokai or a community on Lanai,” sad Helm.

He said that Molokai Renewables, which has been hoping to develop the wind farm on Molokai for the past year, was still pursuing wind studies on Molokai Ranch, where the wind turbines would be sited.

“I Aloha Molokai continues to do their work here,” Helm said. “We aren’t going to stop unless they pull out.”

Kaye, of Friends of Lanai, also said that he hoped that the bill would explicitly prohibit the wind farms on Molokai and Lanai.

But he said that it was a positive step that there appeared to be a recognition by senators this year about the community opposition to the projects.

“If you stepped back, it’s wonderful that there is a recognition that there is going to be opposition to this on Molokai and Lanai and that the communities don’t want it,” he said.

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