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Maui's Bumpy Road to Renewable Energy

The need and the will are there. So what's the holdup?

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Kaheawa Wind Farm

Kaheawa Wind Farm

Photos by David CroxforD

Click here for more pictures of the Kaheawa Wind Farm


Should renewable energy projects get priority over other land use projects?


On the slopes of the West Maui Mountains, near Maalaea, spin 140-foot-tall wind turbines. It’s the site of First Wind’s Kaheawa Wind Farm, operational since June 2006. Powered by the trade winds, those whirring white blades set on this idyllic hill tell a story of Hawaii’s considerable natural endowment for alternative energy. Set back on that bumpy dirt road, those turbines also tell a tale of how easily such good intentions can hit road blocks: The Kaheawa Wind Farm took two years from permitting to completion.

Since it’s located on state conservation land, the project needed a permit with 45 conditions. After conducting an environmental impact statement, they found four bird species that needed to be protected. First Wind, formerly known as UPC Wind, developed a habitat conservation plan to benefit the protected birds and currently employs four wildlife biologists. Then the company needed to conserve native plants in the area, replanting them after the wind turbines were installed. Next, it took some time to work out an agreement for Maui Electric Co. (MECO) to purchase the power from the wind farm – an agreement that also had to be approved by the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC).

That’s all before construction began. The site sits on a 15-degree slope, a steep place to be installing anything. The contractors used an old Jeep trail, but also needed to upgrade the infrastructure, which meant bringing in heavy equipment: The large wind turbine pieces needed a large crane, which was shipped from California.

“It kind of goes on and on like that,” says Mike Gresham, First Wind’s vice president of development in Hawaii. “Everywhere you turn, there’s an obstacle that has to be overcome.”

The Kaheawa project eventually overcame those obstacles, but its story raises pressing questions about Maui’s renewable future. While Maui is arguably the most progressive of all Hawaii’s islands when it comes to renewables, will other companies go through so many hoops to help pioneer the emerging industry? Not only are there issues with permitting and construction, but concerns about workforce development, communicating with and educating the public. Not to mention the issue of making the projects both economically sustainable, in addition to environmentally sustainable.

And on an island so eager – and desperate – to go renewable, should it be so hard?

No Silver Bullet

Lee Jakeway of HC&S

HC&S is Maui's oldest prodcer of renewable energy, using sugar cane waste to fuel steam generators. Lee Jakeway, director of energy development, is pictred in front of the HC&S Puunene plant.

Hawaii uses more petroleum diesel to produce electricity than anywhere else in the United States. MECO used more than 1.3 million barrels of petroleum diesel for its Maalaea generators in 2007 alone. While it would be nice to find one replacement for big oil, a renewable energy fix-all does not exist.

“From the beginning, I have referred to what’s going to meet our energy needs in Hawaii and in Maui County, is what I’ve been calling a renewable energy buffet,” says Maui Mayor Charmaine Tavares. “All the resources that we have here in our islands, we haven’t been harnessing or have been very slow to harness in order to become more independent.”

MECO has the spread laid out and has power purchase agreements from several renewable energy sources, with more on the way.

Predating MECO itself, Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company (HC&S) has been producing electricity for its operations and the Maui community since the turn of the 20th century. These days, it produces renewable energy through biomass and hydropower. What it doesn’t use it sells to MECO. In 2007, HC&S sold 94,027 megawatt-hours to MECO, or roughly 7 percent of Maui’s electrical needs.

After the cane-crushing operation that separates the sugar from the cane, the leftover fibrous biomass called bagasse is burned in steam-producing boilers. Not only are the steam-burning turbines creating electricity, but the steam can be used in the cane-crushing process. In addition, the company has a number of hydropowered plants, or dams in the water ditch near HC&S.

Lee Jakeway, director of energy development for HC&S, says the company won’t be installing any more turbines to produce energy. Rather, the company hopes to develop its technology to increase yields. It is a profitable venture for the sugar producer. “Energy prices are going up, so it’s an avoided cost for us and the utility,” Jakeway says. All other revenue-producing sectors of the company have stayed flat, but selling electrical power has increased, he says. HC&S and MECO have had a firm purchase power agreement for up to 16 megawatts since 1980 and will continue to have it until 2014.

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