As protesters in Kahuku square off against the developer of a planned wind farm in the North Shore community, the standoff raises broader questions about executing Hawaii’s plan to shift to renewable energy.

In the next few years alone to replace a coal-fired plant scheduled to go offline in 2022, Hawaiian Electric Co. expects Oahu will need new wind and solar projects with a collective footprint 29 times the size of Aloha Stadium.

One question is whether the projects can be developed fast enough to meet the 2022 deadline, while also meeting the regulatory and legal hurdles that inevitably slow down projects. Proactively addressing community concerns adds another challenge.

The consensus among environmental lawyers and renewable energy advocates is that Hawaii can still reach its goals, even the ambitious short-term ones for Oahu. But they warn that developers need to be mindful of the laws, places where it makes the most sense to site projects and best practices for engaging with communities.

Kahuku Windmill Demonstration sign along Kamehameha Highway in Kahuku.
Opponents of a proposed wind farm in Kahuku decry the “monster turbines” in this sign along Kamehameha Highway. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“It’s a totally valid question,” said Isaac Moriwake, an attorney with Earthjustice, who frequently works on renewables-related cases before the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission, the regulatory agency overseeing Hawaii’s shift from fossil fuels to renewables.

“I can tell you, people in the energy field have been talking about this for a long time,” said Richard Wallsgrove, who teaches energy law at the University of Hawaii, William S. Richardson School of Law.

HECO spokesman Jim Kelly declined to talk about the Kahuku project, which is being developed by AES Corp.

But Kelly acknowledged that the company is now requesting proposals from energy developers that will have a significant impact on Oahu. Collectively, the projects will have to generate enough power to replace a coal plant, also owned by AES, that now provides about 20% of Oahu’s electricity.

“Right now we have an RFP out that’s the largest in our company’s history,” Kelly said. Invariably the projects will have a “physical footprint,” and some will affect people.

But it’s necessary to reach Hawaii’s clean energy goal. A central part of Hawaii’s plan involves third-party power producers building smaller renewable power plants to replace the big, fossil-fuel fired generators that long powered the state.

By design, these new power generators are supposed to be distributed around the islands. That invariably means more people will have to endure with the negative side effects of activity that was once isolated in just a few areas.

“Every choice involves a trade off,” Kelly said.

High profile fights over land use and environmental issues are nothing new in Hawaii.

But recent ones have raised the stakes. Protesters have engaged in civil disobedience to block projects, first the Thirty Meter Telescope proposed for the summit of Mauna Kea, then a baseball field proposed for Waimanalo and now the Kahuku wind farm.

All of this shows a new element of risk for big energy projects.

But it’s not a sign that Hawaii’s renewables projects are doomed to a similar fate, said Denise Antolini, an environmental lawyer who serves as associate dean for academic affairs at the Richardson law school.

Environmental and renewable energy advocates argue that not all projects are alike. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

For one thing, Antolini said, each project is unique.

Big wind projects, for instance, are different from solar farms. Solar farms are generally not as visible as towering windmills, she said. Plus, they don’t pose the same sorts of problems for endangered species like birds and bats. There is plenty of fallow agricultural land in central Oahu that could be suitable for solar farms, she added.

“Big wind in Kahuku is not the same as a solar farm in central Oahu that’s not visible,” she said.

“She’s spot on,” said Jeff Mikulina, executive director of the Blue Planet Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes the use of renewable energy.

“There’s generally much more community acceptance for solar,” he said.

Siting Of Big Projects A Matter Of Fairness

There’s also a question about environmental justice: the principle that certain communities shouldn’t have to bear a disproportionate share of undesirable projects used by a broader part of society.

More windmills in Kahuku are problematic in part because there already are windmills there, Wallsgrove said.

“I really see a fairness issue that jumps off the page when you look at that project,” he said.

In order to guide project developers, HECO has prepared a guide to show potentially suitable sites, said Shannon Tangonan, a company spokeswoman. The document is available only for developers who sign a nondisclosure agreement, she said.

Isaac Moriwake, an attorney with Earthjustice, said it’s vital for developers of alternative energy projects to engage the community proactively. Matt Mallams/Earthjustice

Still, Blue Planet’s Mikulina said that more people in Hawaii inevitably will see where their electricity comes from. The days of exporting most of Oahu’s production to a single area like the Leeward Coast, are fading. Renewable projects will be in a lot of people’s back yards.

“Our energy is going to be more apparent,” he said. “We’re going to be more participatory.”

Finally, there’s an issue of consulting communities.

State and local governments in Hawaii impose numerous hurdles for developers in general, and renewable energy projects face extra ones. In addition to the standard land-use issues, renewables must go to the public utility regulators, and the public generally can be a party to many of the proceedings.

It’s hardly a fast process. But the real delays occur when developers try to find shortcuts, either by not following the law or not engaging the community, or both, Moriwake said. Often in those cases, environmental lawyers often step in, and projects wind up in litigation.

“If we haven’t learned that already, we haven’t learned a thing,” he said. “There’s no short-cuts on that, especially on a small island community like Hawaii.”

The Kahuku wind farm is hardly the only renewable project running into opposition. And it’s not just wind farms facing opposition.

A proposal by Innergex Renewables to build a solar farm on Department of Hawaiian Home Lands property faces pushback from some Native Hawaiians saying the lands shouldn’t be leased for such a use.

A project proposing to burn eucalyptus trees for fuel on the Big Island faces challenges. And another Innergex project, a large solar farm on ranch land in South Maui, faces a fight from a group called the Pono Power Coalition.

Jay Griffin, the chairman of the Hawaii PUC, said he’s hopeful that the current round of bids for projects, which are due next month, will not be bogged down in litigation. The regulators have woven community engagement components into the requests for proposal in hopes that developers can head off potential problems proactively, he said.

“It gives us concrete reasons for optimism,” he said.

“Hawaii’s Changing Economy”  series is supported by a grant from the Hawaii Community Foundation as part of its CHANGE Framework project.

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