The federal government has charged that state officials are rushing to approve wind power projects without adequately considering environmental impacts, particularly the adverse consequences for an endangered species, the opeapea bat.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service asked the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission in a Dec. 27 letter to stop approving any new wind turbines until state and federal officials have had the chance to meet with the facility owners and review the plans.
This could substantially slow down PUC approval of some controversial wind turbine projects, particularly a newly proposed 13-tower wind farm in western Oahu called Palehua, which federal officials said is threatening the opeapea, also known as the Hawaiian hoary bat.
“We ask that the PUC delay approval of any new wind facility … including the recently submitted Palehua wind facility project, until the project proponent has met with the Service and DOFAW (state Division of Forestry and Wildlife),” wrote Mary Abrams, the Honolulu-based field supervisor for the Pacific Islands Fish & Wildlife Office.
In November, Hawaiian Electric Company sought PUC approval of a power purchase agreement with Eurus Energy America that would be the basis for building the new wind farm in Makakilo, near Kapolei.
Typically the PUC has quickly approved these kinds of contracts, with environmental reviews taking place much later. In January 2015, for example, the PUC approved a contract between Hawaiian Electric and Champlin/GEI Wind Holdings for a 10-turbine wind farm called Na Pua Makani to be located in Kahuku.
State environmental regulators approved its habitat conservation plan more than three years later, in May 2018, stirring criticism that the environmental impacts were given only secondary attention. Kahuku residents who opposed the project said it would kill too many bats.
The letter from federal officials comes at a time of heightened criticism of wind farm projects in Hawaii. Some environmentalists believe the projects have been oversold as a way of reducing the state’s dependence on fossil fuels because they cause other environmental damage.
North Shore residents were initially supportive of the Kawailoa Wind Farm near Waimea Bay, which consists of 30 wind turbines that are each 493 feet high, because they were eager to endorse new kinds of green energy.
But when the huge towers were erected in 2012, many people were surprised by how they dominated the landscape, and then upset to learn that the spinning arms had killed 83 opeapea bats
Many North Shore residents have protested a proposal from Kawailoa Wind Farm that it be allowed to increase the number of bats it is allowed to kill, or as it is called in industry jargon, to “take,” from the 60 originally permitted to 265 in coming years.
More than 500 people have signed a petition on change.org asking state officials to reject the wind power company’s request because they say the firm is not doing enough to reduce the number of bat deaths and mitigate damages to their habitat.
The bats hold a special place in local culture. To some Hawaiians, the bat is sacred, an aumakua, a family ancestor god, worthy of worship and respect.
Given the high level of public concern, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources has extended the comment period on the bat issue until Feb. 21.
“There’s a lot of pent-up concern about these things,” said state Sen. Gil Riviere, who represents the North Shore and has questioned the killing of animals that are at risk of going extinct. “The whole North Shore is paying attention.”
Environmental activist Henry Curtis found the letter from federal officials to the PUC in the course of scrutinizing letters on file with the agency. He said comments by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife underscore his belief that the state, in its efforts to promote renewable energy, is giving too many projects an easy approval without considering their potential hazards.
“With these renewable energy projects, they don’t really look at the environmental impacts until they’ve gone through the PUC process,” said Curtis, who opposes the Palehua wind farm project, which he believes will have an adverse environmental impact. “It’s always better to look at the impacts up front.”
In the letter, Abrams said that more bats are being injured and killed by wind farms than was previously expected, and that scrutiny of the approval process needs to begin earlier to make sure bats are being protected.
Hawaiian Electric “has not been coordinating” with federal or state fish and wildlife officials “to verify that a wind energy producer has completed the necessary compliance procedures,” Abrams wrote.
Once the PUC approves the project, commercial deadlines and power generation thresholds are set. That leaves wildlife officials with less negotiating power in deliberations over whether the wind farm should be operating fewer hours or when air conditions put endangered species of animals at higher risk, she wrote.
“This circumstance has led to several existing wind energy facilities operating without the appropriate or in violation of their State and Federal endangered species permits and limits the conservation measures that can be implemented by the wind facilities to reduce impacts,” Abrams wrote.
Officials at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service could not be reached for further comment because of the federal government shutdown.
A spokeswoman for Hawaiian Electric, Shannon Tangonan, said the utility and the power-generating companies take seriously their responsibility to protect the environment while also helping meet the state’s renewable energy goals.
“The independent power producers who sell electricity to our companies are required to meet all legal and permitting obligations,” she said.
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