The damage is in the details: Big Wind blowing past Lanai voices

with Beth-Ann Kozlovich

HONOLULU—It’s a matter of disclosure, practicality, and fairness—none of which Friends of Lanai say applies to the State’s Big Wind proposal. The project, which seemed to escape a lot of public and media attention last year, would build industrial power plants on Lanai and Molokai. The plants would produce about 400 MW of intermittent wind power to subsidize Oahu’s energy needs.

Friends of Lanai and others, including Hawaii Thousand Friends, who have joined them say the problem is twofold: None of the power would remain on either island and the process by which the players negotiated the deal with Hawaii’s Public Utilities Commission was far from transparent.

Late last month, Friends of Lanai petitioned the PUC to re-open the competitive bidding process. The reason was simple: The group considered the deal with the developers, Castle and Cooke Resorts (C&C) and First Wind Hawaii, to be void based on nonperformance of the conditions the PUC set when it granted a waiver to its own rules. That waiver had been granted over the vehement objections of then Commissioner Les Kondo.

Each developer was to produce 200 MW with a provision in the original agreement with Hawaii Electric Co. (HECO) for one to produce 350 MW should the other not be able to perform. But First Wind could not secure land for its part of the project. And when HECO said it would share some of C&C’s part of development with First Wind replacement developer, Pattern Energy, Friends of Lanai accused HECO and C&C of arbitrarily choosing a new player without the expressed and agreed upon authority to do so.

“We the public are not seeing the documents that back this up,” says Robin Kaye, Friends of Lanai spokesperson. “We’ve never seen the agreement that says if one developer doesn’t come through then the other one can do 350 MW. We’ve not seen any agreement Pattern Energy might have signed with Molokai Ranch. We’ve not seen any agreement C&C cited in its last press release in which it said it is ‘giving its other 200 megawatts’—the ability to develop it—to Pattern Energy. We’ve not seen that agreement. So all this huge Big Wind project, this $3 billion project, this ratepayer, taxpayer project is happening without us knowing what’s going on.”

Kaye says the costs will be significant and will affect all HECO consumers on Oahu and no one seems to know what those costs will actually be.

“There was a bill that was introduced in the Legislature and pushed very heavily by HECO and DBEDT—Senate Bill 367. Among other things, it would have passed on to the ratepayer the cost of the cable ($1 billion). But nowhere in the legislation, and nowhere in any public communication, was the actual cost that will be applied to ratepayers mentioned. We’ve heard unofficially that it would be about 8 cents a kilowatt hour to each household; 8 cents a kilowatt hour is almost a 25 percent increase in people’s rates.”

Donna Wong, the executive director of Hawaii’s Thousand Friends, says she also has other costs on her mind: the price of the dignity of the people of Lanai and Molokai and what that says about those who clamor for it. 

Wong explains: “People have said to me, ‘Well, everybody has to do their fair share, and so that’s too bad, Lanai and Molokai. If it’s going to help the greater good, then sorry.’ This is discussion we have not had. This is a policy decision. Is it going to be this State’s policy from now on that you can just go and take from wherever you want because somebody needs it? That’s not how you malama. That’s not how you care. That’s not how these islands should be treated. Or how people live here have acted. We’re just going into this policy change and it’s so easy to say it’s for the greater good. But you can’t trample on other people.”

Kaye doesn’t buy the greater good argument, which would mean Lanai would be creating its own self-sufficiency—an attainable goal given the island’s 4-to-5 MW grid. Residents could get behind that, he says, even if that might include the installation of a few turbines. But 170 of them at the height of Honolulu’s First Hawaii Bank building with a wingspan of a Boeing 747 occupying up to 25 percent of Lanai should all the turbines be situated there; that is an inequitable trade off, especially with the output to Oahu estimated at only 10-to-12 percent.

“I think this is in the corporate good,” Kaye says. “Therein lies the rub. This is a project that will make so much money for C&C and so much money for whatever developer does it. This is a $3 billion project—$1 billion for the development [on Lanai], $1 billion for Molokai and $1 billion for the cable. What’s so amazing is that for the $1 billion part of the Lanai project, 65 percent will come back to the developer when he turns on the switch through tax credits and tax incentives, plus some federal incentives, too. So that means you and I and everybody in this state will be paying for the development of this. It’s an incredible gift to the corporations.”

“At night, 2 o’clock in the morning, I look down across the city and parts of it are lit up as if it were broad daylight.”

Longtime Lanai residents Martha Evans and daughter Anela now live on Oahu; Anela is in graduate school at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and Martha, who was born and raised on Oahu, now has family obligations to meet. Both say their emotional response to what Oahu wants from Lanai has intensified from their current vantage point.

“At night, 2 o’clock in the morning, I look down across the city and parts of it are lit up as if it were broad daylight,” says Martha. “I say to myself, this is ‘wise use of our resources’? This is ‘keep this city looking like Honolulu City Lights.’ And I really love that song, but the more I think about it, the more the image becomes one of hurt and anger. People have forgotten what being wise stewards of the land and resources means. We need to get back to the point where we do understand ... This is an issue of education.”

Anela says she knows whatever is decided now may come back to haunt her and future generations. She agrees with her mother and Wong that “we must care for that which feeds ... we cannot continue to take, take, take, and expect for there to be what we have for future generations.”

“It’s kind of an unspoken rule when you’re a fisherman or a hunter or any kind of gatherer,“ Anela says. “You know you cannot go to another island, to fishing grounds that you are not familiar with and just go and take what you need and deplete the resources. When fisherman go to other places, they ask somebody who is familiar with that place—they ask for the protocols of that place.”

Kaye says the biggest problem is that no one asked permission, no one asked the people of Lanai much of anything, and the attitude that residents would simply hop to and comply is offensive.

“We were just told,” Kaye says.

It’s often said that life isn’t fair and the survivors are the ones who take what they need, regardless of the costs to others. There is a scene in the film version of Water for Elephants in which the central character, Jacob, is told virtually the same message. Powerless, Jacob takes it no better than the people of Lanai.

But Lanai residents have one advantage: us. And even if it’s because our wallets are involved, we have good, practical reason to demand to see all the details of this deal. In weighing all of the real and implied costs versus so-called benefits, the ethics we think we represent will clearly show themselves.

Hear the entire Town Square interview with Donna Wong, Martha Evans, Anela Evans, and Robin Kay by visiting Reach Beth-Ann Kozlovich at [email protected].