Up In The Air: Big Wind Divides Lanai Community

Sophie Cocke/Civil Beat

Editor's note: This is the second of a three-part series on the Big Wind project. Part 2: Molokai. Part 3: The future.

LANAI — More than 25 years ago, billionaire real estate tycoon David Murdock bought this bucolic Hawaiian island and promised to keep it as unchanged as a few high-end resorts and golf courses might allow.

For decades he’s propped up the island economy, keeping residents employed at its tourist spots, even though he's losing money.

Now, the 88-year-old Murdock has grown tired of dropping as much as $40 million a year on his tropical investment. He’s put the island up for sale.

This was the news delivered by Murdock's management company, Castle & Cooke, earlier this month to lawmakers as they stood in the parking lot at Lanai’s Kaumalapau harbor for the start of a visit aimed at taking the community’s pulse on the Big Wind project. The proposed 200-megawatt wind farm has pitted neighbor against neighbor in this small island community of fewer than 3,000 people.

More than ever, Lanai is at a crossroads. Murdock's impending pullout could be devastating. And that means Big Wind — which some think could provide the island a stable financial base — is in jeopardy, too.

“To be frank, we need your help,” Doug McClaflin, who has led the project for Castle & Cooke’s renewable energy division, told the legislators at the harbor where the company hopes to ship in cement, equipment and parts for 56 wind turbines. “If we don’t have that, it’s going to be a tough road.”

The wind farm with its towering blades would generate power for the densely populated island of Oahu and help stabilize electric rates for most of the state's residents and businesses.

It could bring in $100 million a year to Castle & Cooke, which is what the company would make selling power to Hawaiian Electric Co. That could offset losses on Murdock's other operations and strengthen the Lanai economy.

Unions have come out in strong support of the project. So have some local residents who see the wind farm as a path toward economic revival.

In addition to sustaining employment for carpenters, dock workers and hotel employees, building roads for the wind farm and upgrading the harbor to handle large equipment is expected to create dozens of jobs.

But opposition is growing too, fueled by resentment that the pristine island landscape would be ruined by dozens of wind turbines whose power wouldn’t be available to local residents and businesses. Many worry about the environmental effects of building and operating the wind farm.

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