February 4, 2011 - Hawaii's Big Wind project

Islands hold a special place in our hearts. The same facts of geography that lead to islands' charm can also play a role in making island energy a challenging issue. Islands around the world face similar challenges; whether it's Martha's Vineyard energy strategy or offshore wind near the Maine islands of Damariscove or Monhegan, islanders face questions of how to power society and whether or how to interconnect with the mainland.

Due to its geographic isolation, the Hawaiian islands' energy strategy is especially interesting. This week, hearings are being held in Hawaii on a major wind energy project and its associated undersea transmission development. Hawaii's renewable portfolio standard requires utilities selling power to source an increasing amount of energy from renewable resources. The renewable mandate starts from 10% of net electricity sales effective December 31, 2010, and increases to 40% by December 31, 2030.

One option under consideration involves 400 megawatts of wind energy to be sited in Maui County, particularly on or near the islands of Lana`i and Moloka`i. Connecting that generation to the consumers on Oahu, Hawaii's most populous island, will require underwater transmission cables. Currently, the state of Hawaii and federal agencies are collaborating on a programmatic environmental impact statement (or EIS). Under the federal National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), before the government can undertake or approve actions "significantly affecting the quality of the human environment", involved agencies must draft an assessment of the positive and negative environmental effects of the proposed action. This information is then used for multiple purposes, including helping the agency evaluate specific proposed projects, as well as helping project developers understand the impacts of their project and what they can do to address any negative impacts.

Hawaii is home to some other renewable generation, including an innovative ocean thermal energy conversion facility. OTEC has great potential, but the cost of producing power on a commercial scale is not yet cost-competitive with other resources - not even with oil, the fuel behind about 90% of Hawaii's energy needs. Hawaiian energy thus has been relatively expensive. Wind has the potential to be more cost-effective, but due to visual and other impacts is facing some opposition in the islands. Will the Hawaiian wind effort take off?