The Public Utilities Commission has allowed Maui County and the organization Life of the Land to become intervenors in Hawaiian Electric Co.’s proposal to charge customers for a $4 million study on “Big Wind.”
Henry Curtis of Life of the Land said customers should not be forced to finance the studies, because past rulings by the PUC clearly ordered HECO to evaluate alternatives to the massive wind-power project. The commission’s decision and order, which was signed Wednesday, said HECO’s review of the project should have also evaluated alternatives such as expanding residential or large-scale photovoltaic systems, biomass, biofuel and concentrated solar energy.
But although they granted the interventions, the commission also cautioned Life of the Land and the county that their involvement would be limited to the issues currently on the table.
“The commission will preclude any effort by them to unreasonably broaden the issues,” the decision stated.
It then inserted a curious and unusual note that the commissioners said they expect the intervenors “will comply with the commission’s rules and orders.”
County Energy Coordinator Doug McLeod said the language was “interesting,” but he believes there will be some latitude “in what we can legitimately discuss.”
The county’s principal concern from the start, he said, has been “the lack of community benefits from Big Wind.”
The term refers to plans to develop massive wind farms on Molokai and Lanai, which would send power to Oahu via an undersea cable.
Landowner Castle & Cooke is seeking to develop its half of the project on Lanai; while Molokai Ranch and Pattern Energy are spearheading the discussions of developing wind energy on Molokai. Community groups on both islands are opposing the projects.
McLeod said that in the two years since HECO began its technical studies on wind power, the financial equations for renewable energy have changed significantly.
“We also want to talk (to the PUC) about alternatives,” he said.
A few years ago, wind energy was considered more economical than solar, he said. But since then, solar power costs have crashed.
“The cost of wind versus solar is now dramatically different” from what it was, McLeod said.
On some of the county’s solar energy projects this year, bids have come in at half of what they would have been a year or so ago, he said., adding that the word from Oahu on projects there indicates the same trend.
At least for large-scale solar projects, he said, the prices are equalizing.
Curtis, in a telephone interview from Oahu, said the PUC order first told the intervenors to discuss the points at issue with HECO and decide what they are, then the order appeared to say, “don’t bring them up.”
Like McLeod, and despite the caution, Curtis said he thinks the docket will allow exploration of alternatives to the Big Wind concept.
Peter Rosegg, spokesman for HECO, said that the order was “very narrowly drawn” to deal only with the issue of who pays for the preliminary Big Wind study.
He said this PUC docket will not result in any determination about going ahead with Big Wind’s future. That decision is probably two years away, following further studies and an environmental impact statement, those involved said.