Concerns about renewable energy projects are spreading from street protests to the halls of lawmaking bodies, as state and local legislators are considering measures that could hinder the ability to build the solar and wind farms needed for the state to meet its clean energy goals.
Both the Hawaii Legislature and the Honolulu City Council were considering measures that restrict the placement of wind farms, such as AES Corp.’s controversial Na Pua Makani project in Kahuku on Oahu’s North Shore. The Legislature suspended its session for a few weeks and the City Council took the measure off its agenda in the face of the coronavirus threat now engulfing Hawaii.
But with Hawaiian Electric Co. still scheduled to unveil a slew of new projects in May, there’s a looming question of whether some of those projects will trigger widening protests over other types of projects, leading policymakers to respond to constituents with additional measures.
Already, the protests are driving developers away. On Tuesday, Eurus Energy America announced it was pulling the plug on its proposed Palehua wind farm on Oahu.
“The risk factors associated with developing wind projects in Hawaii were deemed too great for us to proceed,” the company said in announcing the decision. Eurus said it will continue to operate its Eurus Waianae Solar Plant.
Hawaii’s energy law requires all electricity sold in the state to be produced from renewable resources by 2045, and some worry that ongoing opposition could make it hard to reach that goal. Others suggest Hawaii should reconsider its energy policy if communities strenuously object and decide they don’t like the policy after all.
The AES project, for instance, is moving forward despite opposition from residents that dates back a decade, said state Sen. Gil Riviere, whose district includes Kahuku. Riviere said a critical issue is that the permitting and approval process for projects allows little room for public input to stop a project that a community opposes.
“Unless that changes, I don’t think this is the last time that’s going to be a controversy,” Riviere said.
“It’s a concern, for sure,” Jeff Mikulina, executive director of the Blue Planet Foundation which promotes renewable energy, said about the opposition to Na Pua Makani. “And it’s really, really unfortunate that the developer kind of really screwed up on the North Shore.
“The good news,” Mikulina added, “is we don’t see a lot of the pushback from projects that just kind of go through quietly. By and large, mostly smaller projects have done that. There hasn’t been a lot of pushback on those.”
AES, the developer of the North Shore project, responded to an interview request with a one-sentence statement saying, “AES looks forward to continue working with the people of Hawai‘i toward a future where locally produced renewable energy powers communities across the state.”
While the proposed measures show policymakers are responding to public concerns, none pose an immediate problem for AES’ project, or any others. For example, a House bill that would have created a 1-mile setback between windmills and farm houses on agriculture land was amended in the Senate to let the wind energy projects be set up closer to dwellings.
A Honolulu City Council resolution calls for a 5-mile setback for large windmills; however, that measure is still in its infancy and faces more hearings before the council.
Still, the impact of such a measure on the state’s plans could be significant. In testimony before the Honolulu City Council’s Zoning, Planning and Housing Committee, Rebecca Dayhuff Matsushima, director of Hawaiian Electric Co.’s renewable energy division, described what’s coming soon to Oahu under the new wave of projects the company is scheduled to unveil in May.
The footprint of these projects is estimated to be 3,000 acres, she said, roughly the equivalent of 29 Aloha Stadiums of land.
“Realistically, this will require a significant amount of land, which is challenging on a 600-square mile island with more than 1 million people,” she wrote. “Successfully meeting 100 percent renewable energy will require flexibility.”
With the looming possibility that the public could oppose more projects, state lawmakers are also considering a bill that could give the public a stronger say in decision making. Sponsored by Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, the influential chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, Senate Bill 2072 would require the Hawaii State Energy Office to create a strategic plan with benchmarks to help the state reach its goal.
The bill also would establish an advisory group including at least one teacher, farmer, native Hawaiian cultural practitioner and person living near a large renewable energy project, among others, to help make sure communities affected by projects can have “meaningful input and participation in the attainment of Hawaii’s renewable energy and decarbonization goals.”
Rep. Sean Quinlan, who sponsored the bill requiring the 1-mile setback for windmills, said he’s encouraged that the measure is progressing even though the Senate reduced the setback distance.
The bill still includes a provision requiring the University of Hawaii John A. Burns School of Medicine to study the health effects of the noise produced by large wind farms, he said, and that may provide important information to his constituents, which include the Kahuku residents strongly opposing the project.
Quinlan said he supports the state’s energy policy, but questions whether it’s fair to keep locating big projects in the same areas.
“It’s put us in an awkward spot with regards to our energy policy,” he said of the AES project.
Riviere took that idea a step further. He said the public probably didn’t realize just how much of Oahu’s flat land suited for agriculture will have to be given up to solar farms to achieve the state’s goal. The trade-off in land for green energy might not be worth it, he said.
“If the price is to have every square inch of farm land covered in solar panels,” he said, “maybe we need to rethink it.”
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