What happened to Big Wind?

After years of build-up, Big Wind seems to have subsided. What happened?

Robin Kaye

So here we are, in February 2014. Lingle and Murdock clearly thought Big Wind on Lana’i was a great idea. HECO thought it a great idea, as did the Consumer Advocate (at the time) and DBEDT staff agreed (at the time), and the PUC commissioners (at the time) thought it was important enough to waive the normally-required competitive bidding process. Even the ILWU on Lana’i thought it was a great idea (actually, they didn’t think; they simply believed Castle & Cooke’s threat that if the ILWU didn’t support this project, Lana’i would be shuttered and they’d all be out of work.) But the players have changed: we have a new governor, a new Consumer Advocate, a new slew of DBEDT staffers, Castle & Cooke sold out, and Molokai Ranch personnel have seen the light.

But for the past six years, the Lana’i and Molokai communities have paid the price for the lack of a thoughtful, and coherent, state energy policy; we’ve paid the price for allowing developers to fill the vacuum created by this lack of a state policy. “NO WINDMILLS ON LANAI” signs proliferated. The ILWU put up its “Wind Power to Keep Lana‘i Green” (although none of the power would stay on Lana‘i) signs, and fawned over Murdock. Sign waving, speeches and parades were the daily life for this previously quiet town. Threats of violence arose, brothers and sisters stopped speaking to one another — many had opposing signs in their front yards. A once tight- knit community was being destroyed. And statewide, as the proposed project gained “official” traction, it was simultaneously gathering more and more broad-based and loud (one critic of the community’s voice being expressed called us “noise”) opposition.

As the project continued to generate severe and withering criticism, many began asking why HECO couldn’t do this project on O’ahu (while HECO officials were insisting that “the politics of O’ahu would never allow industrial wind on this island.”) Others worried about the impacts of a high-voltage undersea cable that would transverse the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. On Lana‘i, concerns included the potential food-processor effect of 174 spinning turbines situated right in the flight path of the endangered Ua‘u (Hawaiian Petrel), the irreparable destruction of prime hunting and fishing grounds, and certain damage to over 200 cultural and historic sites. The cost to tax and ratepayers was staggering, especially to a state facing huge deficits at the time. Estimates ranged from $3 billion to $6 billion for the 400 MW and the undersea cable. All to send power to O‘ahu; neither Lana‘i nor Moloka‘i would see one kWh.

So where is Big Wind today? It appears that the cacophony of opposition took root. Abercrombie recently announced that Big Wind “...will not happen. I’m tired of fighting you [the Lana’i community]; it’s an unnecessary distraction to what Larry Ellison wants to do on Lana’i; and it will cost too much money.” Shortly thereafter, HECO announced, in a major change of strategy, that they no longer needed Big Wind from Lana’i; that in fact, they could reach the required RPS without it. The State’s Energy Office followed quickly behind, with the same “we don’t need it.” And for the first time since Big Wind had come into being, the PUC granted Friends of Lana’i intervenor status in the docket investigating Castle & Cooke’s progress – or lack thereof.

Is it still even a slim possibility? Yes, indeed. When Ellison bought Murdock’s shares of Lana‘i, Murdock kept the “rights to develop the wind farm.” Of course, no one other than the PUC and a slew of lawyers has actually seen these “rights.” They could simply be a face-saving gift to Murdock, never to be exercised. Or, they could be mired in onerous conditions, perhaps with severe time and/or financial constraints (e.g., he must have obtained 1/3 of the required permits before exercising those rights, or 75% of the financing…). They could be a ploy on Murdock’s part to sell the “project” to an unsuspecting third party. Or, lastly, they could actually lead to the construction of this industrial wind power plant on Lana’i. We just don’t know.

But we do know that Castle & Cooke has failed to demonstrate any progress on Big Wind, having done virtually nothing to advance the project since March, 2011. In fact, the only public “statement” they’ve made is their latest consultant’s report designed to trash the possibility that the communi- ties on Maui would stand for more wind development due to risks of aesthetic, cultural, and environmental harm — exactly what has been claimed by Lanai and Molokai and helped to delay Big Wind development so far.

Big Wind may turn out to have been just a six-year nightmare, but the damage to Lana‘i will linger long after a final decision is made. Signs from both “sides” are still visible. Frayed friendships are remembered and bemoaned. The new majority landowner’s absence of support is comforting – but not guaranteed. And every time the word “windmill,” regardless of size, location or purpose (e.g., small horizontal windmills for a desalination plant) appears in a plan for Lana’i’s energy future, the community’s anger and opposition resurfaces. It may take years for the scars to subside. Maybe not in my life time.