Wind energy is cited among the green alternatives to fossil fuel, but environmental and community groups are irritated about the handling of a massive project to transmit energy to Oahu from windmills on Lanai and Molokai. They should be provided more access to preliminary work on the plan by state agencies and Hawaiian Electric Co., and hold project members to promises of full access and participation at future venues.
HECO is seeking a “power purchase agreement” from the Public Utilities Commission to recover $4 million from ratepayers in costs for studies associated with the Big Wind, or Interisland Wind, project. The PUC has endorsed the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative, which mandates that 40 percent of the state’s energy come from renewable sources by 2030, so the studies are consistent with the state’s goals. The path to getting there, though, has the potential to keep lay people in the dark until it emerges as a fait accompli.
Even Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa is complaining that “no one can tell us where the cable will run, its overall cost or how it would interconnect with the grids on the islands of Maui, Molokai and Lanai.… We need a clear, complete, accurate, detailed analysis for the cable system before we agree to finance it on the backs of the ratepayers.”
For several years, the state, U.S. Department of Energy and HECO have analyzed the Big Wind project and “concluded that an undersea cable system is technically feasible, cost-effective and financially viable to serve the public interest and benefit,” according to an introduction to state legislation prepared by project participants. HECO now is studying the actual particulars, such as the route for the cable, said Robbie Alm, executive vice president.
To Mayor Arakawa’s concerns, Alm said a connection with Maui island has not been decided yet.
The U.S. Department of Energy has begun preparing its environmental impact statement on the project and the state will begin work on its EIS after the federal document is completed, Alm said. At that point, possibly this fall, the public will be allowed full access and participation in the process, he said, In addition, he said, the project will need 70 state permits, each of which will be subject to public hearings before being granted.
A big part of the concern at this stage stems from the fact that the PUC is a quasi-judicial state agency whose primary focus is regulations and rates, with dockets full of technical verbiage; its required level of public hearings is not structured like, say the City Council or the state Legislature, both of which hold multiple readings and hearings on issues.
Indeed, the present process consists of “technical studies to determine the possibility of adding large amounts of wind and solar energy to the Oahu grid,” HECO spokesman Peter Rosegg told the Star-Advertiser’s Alan Yonan Jr. The results of those studies “do not mean the Interisland Wind project will be done, only that it is possible,” he added.
Well, the studies surely seem to go beyond that uncertainty.
The attempt by Honolulu-based Life of the Land to intervene so it could gain access to all the information about the project has been rejected by the PUC. The environmental organization’s executive director, Henry Curtis, said his attempt to obtain public documents from the state has been resisted. Curtis said the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism said it would cost Life of the Land $15,000 for photocopies of all its Big Wind material, and the PUC would charge $8,000 for copies of its documents.
PUC Chairwoman Hermina Morita says it complied with the law on Curtis’s request, which asked for an overabundance of information (see today’s Letters to the Editor), and that anyone can view the commission’s website.
But while the PUC is not bound by the information disclosure standards of other state agencies, it needs to be acutely aware that public accessibility and understanding is crucial to what would be the priciest, most controversial public utility project in the state’s history, even at this pre-EIS stage. The movers and shakers need to ensure comprehensive openness as the state environmental impact statement process unfolds with an abundance of hearings and thorough public scrutiny.