Honolulu’s effort to implement a landmark state agricultural lands policy faces opposition from major players in the state’s renewable energy industry, highlighting a significant challenge Hawaii faces as it tries to produce more of its own food and electricity in an island chain with limited available land.

Hawaii Grown

Gov. David Ige had set a goal of doubling Hawaii’s food production. Meanwhile the Legislature put in place a mandate of producing 100% of the state’s electricity from renewable sources by 2045.

But energy companies and farmers need the same thing — lots of flat land.

The Hawaii Clean Power Alliance has asked the Hawaii Land Use Commission to postpone taking any action on the City and County of Honolulu’s proposal to designate about 41,000 acres as “Important Agricultural Lands,” a designation meant to preserve prime agriculture lands for ag use.

Also arguing against the IAL designation are three existing projects – EE Waianae Solar LLC, Hawaii Gas’ Waihonu solar farms near Mililani and TerraForm Power’s Kahuku Wind Power project – along with 174 Power Global, which has proposed a large solar farm with battery storage in Kunia.

Honolulu’s land use ordinance now allows renewable energy projects on land zoned for agriculture. How much the IAL designation would change that is unclear. Honolulu officials have said the designation will have little impact on the ability of landowners to use their property.

Friendly horse with Kahuku wind turbines in background. 11.20.13 ©PF Bentley/Civil Beat
The City and County of Honolulu’s proposal to designate about 12% of Oahu’s land as “Important Agricultural Land” has drawn opposition from renewable energy developers such as the operator of the Kahuku wind farm. PF Bentley/Civil Beat/2013

But renewables companies say they’re concerned, given that the IAL statute says the overarching policy is to do things like direct “nonagricultural uses and activities from important agricultural lands to other areas and ensure that uses on important agricultural lands are actually agricultural uses.”

None of the companies responded to requests for comment for this article, and neither did Gov. David Ige via a request sent to his spokeswoman Jodi Leong.

However, the renewables companies have submitted testimony to the state Land Use Commission.

“Renewable energy projects are sited on lands that often overlap with lands that are zoned agricultural and are now proposed to be designated as IAL,” Frederick Redell, executive director of the power alliance, wrote in testimony to the LUC. “The County’s proposed designation would classify a significant portion of land on Oahu as IAL and impose additional restrictions upon the land for uses that are not primarily agricultural in nature.”

Laurent Nassif, senior director of the Waihonu solar farms, made a similar point: that renewables companies often site renewable energy projects on ag land because the projects need enormous amounts of space that can’t be found in residential neighborhoods or urban areas. Honolulu’s proposal, which would designate 12% of Oahu’s ag land as IAL, could hinder the state’s ability to meet its renewables goals, he said.

“Solar projects specifically require large and relatively level parcels of land upon which to place solar panels, and they also require unobstructed access to intense sunlight,” he wrote in testimony to the Land Use Commission. “Given these and other practical constraints, Ag Land is often the best and only option for siting these important projects.”

The dispute comes amidst Ige’s call for Hawaii to be less reliant on imported food and energy resources. When he took office in 2014, Ige announced a vision to double the state’s food production by 2020, something that didn’t happen. Meanwhile, in 2015, he signed landmark legislation mandating a bigger energy goal: for Hawaii to produce virtually all electricity sold in the state with renewable resources by 2045.

Against this backdrop, the City and County of Honolulu is seeking to implement a plan ensuring vital ag lands are used primarily for agriculture. Although the concept of protecting Important Agricultural Lands was articulated in the 1978 Hawaii Constitution, it wasn’t until 2005 that the Legislature adopted laws enabling landowners to voluntarily designate their land as IAL.

The IAL law also requires the counties to impose the designation on other lands that meet criteria spelled out in the statute. The problem is Honolulu’s effort to identify and map out the lands has run into a storm of opposition from dozens of the approximately 1,800 landowners who find their property potentially facing new restrictions, as well as the Hawaii Farm Bureau.

State Board of Agriculture Chair Phyllis Shimabukuro-Geiser testified in favor of Honolulu’s IAL plan in February. And that position has not changed, said Janelle Saneishi, a Department of Agriculture spokeswoman.

State officials hope “agrivoltaic” projects where farming and ranching take place amidst solar farms will provide a path forward for Hawaii. Kauai Island Utility Cooperative is using sheep to keep the invasive guinea grass at bay in its nearly 200-acre solar farm. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2019

Meanwhile, state energy officials are trying to chart a path forward by focusing on ways to enable energy projects and agriculture to take place on the same land — a practice known as “agrivoltaics.”

Scott Glenn, who serves as Hawaii’s chief energy officer overseeing the State Energy Office, said the office doesn’t have a position on Honolulu’s IAL plan, but believes the best quality soils, known as “A soil,” should be preserved for agriculture, as state land use law requires.

“We’re not interested in changing the law,” he said.

Effect Of IAL Designation Is Not Clear

For renewable companies opposing the IAL designation, it’s partly an issue of understanding what the law will mean for them.

“It is unclear what the IAL designation means for landowners and renewable energy developers,” Laurence Green, project manager for 174 Power Global parent Hanwha Energy USA Holdings Corp., wrote in testimony to the Land Use Commission.

While Honolulu officials have said the IAL designation doesn’t change existing classifications or significantly affect permitted land uses, Greene noted, “it seems the purpose of the IAL designation is to do just that – restrict the use of IAL designated lands to prevent non-agricultural uses.”

Jodi Yamamoto, an attorney who represents the Kahuku Wind project, agrees. She said it is far from clear what the designation will mean for renewable projects’ ability to obtain approvals such as permits from Honolulu officials.

“These uncertain impacts specifically impact Kahuku Wind and other similarly positioned renewable energy projects — both current projects and future projects,” she testified. “The confusion is only compounded by the significant delay between the Legislature’s creation of the IAL system in 2005 and the County’s Recommendation being considered now by the Commission over fifteen years later.”

The Land Use Commission has put Honolulu’s IAL proceeding on hold while it seeks an opinion from the attorney general on whether the City and County followed the law when developing its plan. LUC chairman Jonathan Likeke Scheuer has called that a threshold issue that will determine whether the commission will move forward.

Wren Wescoatt, Director, Development of Longroad Energy.
Wren Wescoatt, director of development for Longroad Energy’s Mahi Solar project proposed for Kunia, is looking for ways to farm and ranch on land used by the solar farm. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Regardless of what happens, the dispute has brought into sharp relief the need to figure out a way for agriculture and energy projects to coexist. It’s not just Glenn’s team at the State Energy Office that’s looking at agrivoltaics.

Longroad Energy’s Mahi Solar project planned for Kunia is also taking a hard look at conducting farming and ranching amidst the project’s solar arrays, said Wren Westcoatt, the project’s director of development. With enough electricity to power the equivalent of some 37,000 homes, Mahi Solar is enormously important for Oahu.

Westcoatt also understands the tension.

“Farming, ranching, solar: they all like the same type of land,” he said. “They like flat land with a lot of sun and preferably dirt.”

Mahi Solar is looking at crops it might be able to grow: things that tolerate shade, flowering plants that could support beekeeping, sweet potatoes. The Hawaii Agricultural Research Center in Kunia has created the Agrivoltaic Research and Development Center to help see what crops can grow best amidst renewables farms.

The center’s director, Stevie Whalen, was not available for comment but said in an email that she believes Hawaii can reach both its energy and ag goals.

“The important point here is that the barriers pointed out can be overcome as long as both parties cooperate on mutual benefits,” she said.

Westcoatt agreed.

“I’m hoping that we can find a way to use the land for both,” he said.

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