On Aug. 15, the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission officially pulled the plug on David Murdock’s environmentally disastrous plans for Big Wind on Lanai.
Citing the Legislature’s recent repeal of the 2012 undersea cable bill (Act 205), and HECO’s statement that it no longer needed wind from Lanai to reach its renewable energy targets, the PUC closed the door on the Murdock/Lingle/Abercrombie plan to sacrifice one-quarter of Lanai to enrich a mainland real estate developer’s bottom line.
The PUC’s announcement brought back a flood of memories, some pleasant, some — not so much.
When my wife and I first came to Lanai in 1974, it was the epitome of a close-knit “plantation town.”
When Murdock took over in the late 1980s, he promised to keep pineapple under cultivation, but a few years into his reign, he decided there simply wasn’t enough water to support both the plantation, then the world’s largest, and the hotels and luxury homes he planned to build. Murdock was sure that visitors would stay in his hotels, fall in love with this beautiful, quiet island, and stay; he envisioned finally making a profit on his investment in Castle & Cooke.
Unfortunately for Murdock’s wallet, this logic proved to be flawed. For one, his dream of residential luxury development was already years ahead on Maui; and perhaps even more so, the state economy faltered just when he needed it to support tourism’s growth on Lanai. Guests may have loved staying in his hotels at Manele Bay and Koele, but few made the transition to becoming residents — not even snowbirds.
So he lost patience with tourism and cut a new deal with then Gov. Linda Lingle: he would build a huge industrial wind power plant of 400 MW on what he considered “wasted” Lanai land, and ship it all to Oahu through an undersea cable that he would also build. This package would provide electricity equal to almost one-third of Oahu’s power use at the time.
It was a brilliant scam, providing him an annual gross upwards of a million dollars over a guaranteed 20-year run, not including federal tax credits and grants. What a quick and easy fix to Oahu’s massive energy needs- just about everybody loved it — at first.
But Lingle and Murdock and later Gov. Neil Abercrombie made a fundamental and ultimately project-killing mistake. They completely underestimated (did they even consider?) the community’s opposition to losing its identity and more than 20,000 acres of land of significant cultural, historic and recreational value to 170 giant turbines.
Murdock’s arrogance during this time was palpable: how could a plantation town not do what its feudal lord wanted? How could “his” people not get behind making him money? How could the state’s monopoly utility get the power it needed if not from Lanai’s unused (read: undeveloped) hills? How could powerful legislators and government officials not support this?
And so, the battle was joined — at the dinner tables where brothers and sisters publicly disagreed with each other whether what was good for Murdock was good for the island; parents argued with their children, friends with friends.
Looking back at this period, it’s clear that Big Wind’s biggest impact was to shred the social fabric of this small, rural island that had sustained it since the 1920s when the Dole Planation opened for business.
There were key moments in the State Capitol’s square building: first a meeting in Gov. Abercrombie’s office with a contingent of Lanai residents who had formed Friends of Lanai to support each island’s energy independence and to oppose Big Wind (folks on Molokai, also an early target of Big Wind, formed their own group, I Aloha Molokai).
Abercrombie didn’t show, instead sending out his chief of staff. Unhappy with this slight, one of FOL’s supporters made it clear he had not come all this way for nothing, he “wanted to speak to the horse’s head, not his ass.”
Next, off to a chat with then-Sen. David Ige who told us that he’d been involved in the project’s very early planning stages, and had always thought it a bad idea. Ultimately three valiant Legislators would vote “no” on the (now-repealed) undersea cable bill that enabled Big Wind, while 11 not-so-brave lawmakers hid behind a vote of yes, “with reservations.”
And there were key victories here on Lanai: A bank manager unexpectedly walking away from the bank to join our sign-waving group. People coming up to me at the post office, looking both ways to see who was watching, then giving me a contribution for FOL. The individual whose generosity allowed us to engage the state’s best environmental attorney. The local lawyer whose research and writing skills gave Murdock’s attorneys a serious challenge. The residents who took days off from work to travel to every other island for PUC public hearings.
There’s the young Hawaiian woman who offered to beat up the guy who threatened my family. The long-time resident who came up to me at the hardware store and told me that he couldn’t come out publicly, but he was honored that FOL was speaking for him; the many Oahu environmentalists and ex-legislators who helped guide us through the environmental and legislative review process, and the many, many Oahu folks who housed and fed us when we came over to testify.
There were hundreds of hunters who signed the “No Windmills on Lanai” petition; generous contributions from supporters that paid for our videos and the incredible model of the wind power plant. How we relished the stunned look on federal officials’ faces when they saw what Murdock really had in mind.
On the other side, we had the local ILWU cheering on Murdock, thereby turning its back to its heroic history of working on behalf of its workers, not the Company. The local leadership of the ILWU caved to the Maui leadership and let them tell Lanai workers what to do and how to think.
We also had to contend with a Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism official who insisted that no one was being intimidated, because, “No one’s told me they feel intimidated!”
We fought with the editor and owner of the local newspaper which steadfastly refused to accept any anti-wind, anti–Murdock articles, letters or even paid-for ads.
And then there was one Oahu tech advocate, a staunch supporter of all things that reeked of corporate development, and a huge Murdock fan.
Here’s just two examples of what he wrote about us:
• “The people of Lanai need to make it clear that they want to preserve their special community, that they support Murdock and agree that Lanai needs to embrace Big Wind to do that. They need to express an urgency and demand for action. At this point they need to do the right thing, and right away.”
• “While the unions have publicly supported Murdock, the rank and file has been quietly supportive, but not vocal, even in the face of the loud and bitter attacks the Friends have leveled against Murdock, making him an outcast on his own island and bringing him to the point of sale. It’s not fair.”
That writer was so wrong in so many ways, but in one instance he was correct: it wasn’t a fair fight at all. Given the power of the Governor’s Office, the largely apathetic Legislature, a complicit and compliant PUC chair (appointed by Lingle), and Murdock’s total control over 98 percent of our island, we should not have won.
But we did. We learned how to organize, how to make our collective voices heard; we never gave up, and we stayed strong in the face of overwhelming odds. As a result, we can now say sayonara to Big Wind.
A few years back, I had won a “lunch with the Governor” at a nonprofit’s charity auction. Then-Gov. Abercrombie, a staunch Big Wind supporter, came to the table and after some pleasantries, he reached his hand across the table at me. I was sure he was going to slap me for all the hassles and bad PR we’d caused, but instead he looked me straight in the eye and said: “Robin, it’s not going to happen. It’s too much money, it conflicts with what the new owner (Larry Ellison) wants to do, and I’m tired of fighting your community.”
I knew then we had won, but it took several more years for the Legislature, HECO and the PUC to get the memo. The PUC’s action on Aug. 15 almost feels anti-climactic. But we welcome it all the same. We persisted, we yelled, we wrote, we testified, we told the truth — and we won.
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