State energy officials and renewable energy developers joined Gov. Neil Abercrombie at the state Capitol Wednesday as he signed legislation expected to help bring energy from the neighbor islands to Oahu’s electric grid.
But the ceremony surrounding the controversial undersea cable bill was eclipsed by questions about the sale of Lanai to billionaire Oracle CEO Larry Ellison and what that means for a large-scale wind farm proposed for that island. The cable law is expected to help attract investors to the Lanai Big Wind project that’s designed to bring electricity to the state’s most populous island.
Big Wind has been in the works for more than five years and has sharply divided the community of Lanai, pitting neighbor against neighbor as residents take sides on the project.
The escalating acrimony surrounding the project, which Castle & Cooke has said in past months was critical to salvaging the financial health of the company, is one of the reasons that residents believe Murdock put the island up for sale.
The company has said that it has been hemorrhaging more than $20 million annually on operations. The wind farm could bring in millions of dollars a year, according to information made public by Hawaiian Electric Co.
Last summer, Murdock told Lanai Today that keeping the island would only sustain the animosity on Lanai. He said that his other options were to either sell the island or shut down operations. And local residents told Civil Beat during a trip to the island months ago that they feared he would pick up and leave the island if residents continued to try and derail the project.
He is transferring ownership of 98 percent of the island to Ellison and his management company employs about 800 of Lanai’s approximately 3,000 residents at the two main resorts and golf courses.
So it was a shock to many local residents when they heard that Murdock had retained the rights to the wind farm.
“Our first reaction was that this is out of spite, saying you screwed with me, I’m not going away,” Robin Kaye, head Friends of Lanai, told Civil Beat. The group has worked to stop Big Wind.
But it’s not clear what Castle & Cooke’s retention of the wind farm rights mean, or whether Ellison could potentially stop the wind farm if he decided he doesn’t want it. Details of the agreement have not been made public, and neither Ellison nor representatives from Castle & Cooke returned Civil Beat’s calls on Wednesday.
Ellison could potentially halt the project because he will control the infrastructure, including the harbor where boats would have to dock with huge windmill parts and the water company — key resources for building the wind farm.
At the bill-signing ceremony, Abercrombie noted construction of a cable was still a long way off but the legislation would facilitate discussions by developers about renewable energy projects.
But the press had little interest in the cable bill. Instead, reporters wanted to know how the sale of Lanai would affect development of a wind farm, they wanted more details about the sale and one even suggested that the press conference was coincidentally on the same day the sale was supposed to close.
But Abercrombie had few answers about the wind farm.
“I think the purchase of the island is probably the center focus,” he said, adding that the fate of the wind project remains to be seen.
Even though the wind farm at least for now remains a Castle & Cooke project, there are many people who would like to meet with Ellison about his intentions.
Abercrombie said he hoped to meet with Ellison in the future.
His energy chief, Mark Glick, also hasn’t met with the new owner.
Representatives from Biological Capital and Pattern Energy, two companies that are hoping to develop the Molokai wind farm and undersea cables for the Big Wind project, also said that they hadn’t met with him.
Nor has Ellison met with the community, said Kaye, who is hopeful that there will be future discussions about the wind farm.
“We know so little about his intentions. This whole thing has been incredibly opaque,” he said. “We hope that he will be a better steward of the island than Murdock and we are hopeful that he will not develop the wind farm.”
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