State senators are pushing forward a measure to set the minimum distance power-generating wind turbines must be from Hawaii’s shores as part of an effort to meet a state-mandated goal of using 100% clean energy by 2045.

Senate Bill 2535, introduced by Sen. Chris Lee whose district includes parts of the Windward side of Oahu, originally called for prohibiting turbines closer than 12 miles from shore, but that proposition failed in two key Senate committees.

On Tuesday, the Senate approved a revised measure that does not set a limit, leaving it up to the House to decide how many miles wind turbines must be from shore. The bill passed on a vote of 23-2.

Onshore wind turbine projects have faced opposition in the past because of concerns about effects on the environment health. Supporters hope that placing wind turbines offshore will produce clean energy and mitigate the local impact. Blaze Lovell/Civil Beat/2019

Lee said the bill is meant to steer Hawaii away from fossil fuels, reduce the cost of electricity and reduce the impact on coastal communities previously affected by land-based wind turbines.

“It’s important for offshore projects to be done right, and (ensure) they’re not going to impact nearshore marine ecosystems or our coastal communities,” Lee said.

The bill faced little opposition. Several representatives of coastal communities submitted written testimony on the bill raising concerns about how wind farms may affect marine life, coastal residents and cultural practices, although they all agreed that clean energy is needed.

Some coastal residents suggested the turbines should be kept at least 12 miles offshore.

Waimanalo resident Michele Akana submitted a statement urging lawmakers to mandate that wind farms be no closer than 30 miles from shore so they do not “obstruct Native Hawaiian ocean resources that include reef systems, fishing areas and cultural practices.”

“I do not agree that any offshore wind farms will not negatively impact our Native Hawaiian communities, cultural practices or natural and ocean resources,” Akana wrote. “Progress is good but is it worth the cost of what we are losing?”

Onshore wind energy projects in Hawaii have been controversial in the past. In 2019, Kahuku residents led protests against the Na Pua Makani wind farm on the North Shore. They argued that the turbines, the largest on Oahu, were too big and too close to homes and schools.

Elsewhere, offshore projects have faced heated opposition. In Massachusetts, as early as 2004 residents began protesting a proposed wind farm off Martha’s Vineyard over concerns about impacts on the fishing industry and sight lines. Last year, the U.S. approved the project, allowing the developer to proceed with plans to install 62 turbines about 15 miles offshore. The go-ahead prompted local fishermen to file suit in federal court to halt the project. The case is still pending in court.

Worldwide, offshore wind turbines are widely used as a source of renewable energy in places such as the United Kingdom, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands and parts of Asia.

The Biden administration has endorsed offshore wind farms as a centerpiece of its clean energy and jobs creation programs.

There are currently no offshore wind farms in Hawaii. Two developers – AWH Oahu Northwest Project and Progression South Coast Of Oahu Project – have submitted proposals for three potential projects. The bids are currently undergoing review by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, a federal agency that holds leasing authority.

The approval process takes nine to 10 years, according to D. Noelani Kalipi, chief strategy officer for Progression Energy, whose proposal for a project on the Windward side of Oahu is under review.

The project proposes a floating wind energy facility with up to 27 turbines that could produce 400 megawatts of electricity, enough to provide about 25% of Oahu’s energy, according to Kalipi.

“It’s going to take a while to put this together, and the permitting processes are rigorous for a good reason,” she said. “We want to make sure there is community participation, not just consultation, in the project. We don’t get to the finish line unless we’re working with everyone to get there.”

The state Office of Energy, Hawaii’s lead agency on developing clean energy, submitted testimony to the Senate saying there should be more studies before establishing an offshore wind turbine setback. The agency is currently working on an analysis of the effectiveness of offshore turbines based on their size and distance from the shore. The agency is also developing a visualization of what offshore wind farms would look like from shore.

Lee said that the federal government’s push for offshore wind projects is beneficial, as long as the project is situated to have the least possible impact on local communities.

“In Hawaii, we want to make sure that we get ahead of the game and ensure protection so that we don’t have projects that are too close to shore that could have an impact on our coastal communities,” Lee said.

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