As protesters on Mauna Kea fight the development of the Thirty Meter Telescope for a ninth week, residents on Oahu’s North Shore are drawing inspiration from the Big Island as they fight a land battle of their own.
A community group in Kahuku has been trying unsuccessfully to stop the installation of eight wind turbines that would add to a dozen already standing in the area. At 568 feet, the new turbines would be the tallest in the state. Workers are laying the foundation, and the turbine pieces are set to be transported for construction next month.
But not if Ku Kia’i Kahuku has its way.
“This is our Mauna Kea in our backyard,” said Sunny Unga, a group member.
The formation of Ku Kia’i Kahuku shows the movement on Mauna Kea is motivating citizens beyond the Big Island to assert collective power over land-use decisions. The group hasn’t pledged to physically block construction but has adopted the Mauna Kea protest philosophy of kapu aloha, a peaceful and respectful code of conduct.
Members argue the wind project, developed by the AES Corp., is too big and too close to neighbors. The turbines would be within about a third of a mile of Kahuku Elementary School, and opponents are worried about noise pollution, flickering shadows and loss of property values.
There are also environmental concerns including threats to native hoary bats, or opeapea, which are sacred in Hawaiian culture. Dozens of them have been killed in recent years at the Kawailoa Wind Farm.
Ku Kia’i Kahuku took notice of the power of organization and collaboration among protesters at Mauna Kea where the TMT has been held up since mid-July, said the group’s president, Kananiloa’anuenue Ponciano. She hopes to emulate it with her neighbors who said they have long opposed additional wind turbines in the community.
“What we’re taking away from Mauna Kea is that it’s never too late to stand up for what is pono,” she said. “We can make our voices heard through kapu aloha.”
About two dozen members of Ku Kia’i Kahuku and their children, holding and wearing Hawaiian flags and displaying anti-wind farm signs, visited the Public Utilities Commission on Wednesday.
They accompanied attorney Lance Collins, representing the nonprofit Life of the Land, who filed a motion to invalidate the wind farm’s power purchase agreement. As Collins submitted his paperwork, protesters chanted “Ku Kia’i Kahuku,” their voices echoing through the government building’s foyer.
Ku Kia’i Kahuku has also borrowed the triangle symbol that represents Mauna Kea.
“Ku Kia’i Mauna is strong,” she said. “The mana is strong, the love is strong. And that is the same thing that Kahuku is aligned with: strong mana, strong love for our keiki and our families.”
The organized community pushback to the AES proposal is not standard NIMBYism, said Peter Adler, a longtime Honolulu arbitrator. Along with other anti-development efforts, such as the opposition to a planned sports complex at Sherwood Forest, it may indicate an emerging trend in which residents claim veto power over government-approved projects.
“‘Not in my backyard’ issues have been going on for years, but these have a ‘We’re the protecters’ notion to them, for better for worse,” he said. “People are asserting that these are sacred areas.”
In general, Adler said, project developers and governments should do everything in their power to address community concerns early on.
“There will always be opposition,” he said. “The question is the character and quality of the consultation.”
AES says it did everything it was supposed to for the wind farm, which it calls Na Pua Makani.
According to Verla Moore, a community liaison for AES, the state Board of Land and Natural Resources approved the project after studying the potential impacts “across a broad range of categories in great detail,” including public health and safety, visual and noise impacts and protecting wildlife and natural resources.
“After hearing from our North Shore community in more than 20 public meetings, we made a number of changes to address specific concerns, such as reducing the number of turbines from 15 to eight,” she said in a statement. “AES is committed to ensuring this energy project not only contributes toward a sustainable, clean energy future for our state – but that it also benefits the Kahuku community.”
After Na Pua Makani starts running in the summer of 2020, Moore said, AES has pledged more than $2.5 million for a community recreation center and $2 million for two local organizations, North Oahu Hometown Opportunities and Laie Community Association.
Hawaiian Electric Co., which plans to buy energy from AES’s wind operation, welcomes – and actually requires – all renewable energy developers to engage with their communities and hear neighbors’ input, said Peter Rosegg, a HECO spokesman.
“We think it’s important that people know what’s going to happen in their community and have a chance to express their concerns or support,” Rosegg said. “And we think developers should listen and do what can be done to diminish concerns.”
But Hawaii relies mostly on out-of-state investors to construct renewable energy projects, he said, and if a project that passes all requirements is blocked, there’s a risk of scaring off would-be renewable providers that might find less resistance elsewhere.
“If I was thinking of building a project in Hawaii and looked at all that has gone on here, I might think, ‘Gee, I can build a project in Texas or North Dakota and not face so much grief.’ That is a significant part of our concern,” said Rosegg, who noted that in 2015, the Hawaii Legislature mandated the state rely exclusively on renewable energy by 2045.
“For a place like Hawaii, so dependent on outside investment to help us do what we want to do, like 100% renewable energy and other goals, that can present a challenge.”
Ponciano said her group is not against renewable energy, but she wants the wind farm to go somewhere that doesn’t impact a residential area.
Rosegg said in a land-limited place like Hawaii, there aren’t many options.
“We don’t have very much land where you can hide a wind farm,” he said. “Our position is if we’re going get to 100% renewable energy, we have to take advantage of all the opportunities available to us, and they’re going to have to be in more communities than before.”
Wilson Unga, who is part of Ku Kia’i Kahuku with his wife Sunny, said the protesters on Oahu feel solidarity with those on Mauna Kea.
“Just like Mauna Kea, we also feel like we have these external pressures and big corporations foisting upon a very small community these industrial turbines,” he said. “We can’t help but feel voiceless, we can’t help but feel powerless, and the government and this big corporations have repeatedly disregarded and neglected the voice of the community.”
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service.
That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.
Help keep our journalism free for all readers by becoming a monthly member of Civil Beat today.