Hawaii's Big Wind Project Downplayed in New Energy Study

Hawaiian Electric Co.

UPDATED 9/12/12 11:30 a.m.

The state has paid a private company $3 million to conduct environmental reviews for the Big Wind project. But that study, paid for with federal stimulus funds, has been essentially scrapped as the state and U.S. Department of Energy embark on a new study that doesn't favor any particular energy source or location.

The news comes on the eve of a series of public meetings that federal officials are hosting throughout the islands to hear public comments on a programmatic environmental impact statement that goes far beyond studying wind energy options in Maui County. And it follows protests last year against the Big Wind project, which seeks to bring wind energy from Molokai and Lanai to Oahu via undersea cables.

The PEIS is intended to serve as a blueprint for energy developers when they do their own environmental studies, lessening the time and cost, federal officials said. It can also be used to guide energy policy.

While the state energy office says that it’s the same PEIS, just expanded, the U.S. energy department stressed it’s a whole different concept.

“It has a new name, a new scope,” said Jim Spaeth, the U.S. Department of Energy's senior advisor for the Pacific region in Hawaii. “In essence it is a new PEIS.”

The first study was called the Hawaii Interisland Renewable Energy PEIS: Wind. The new study is called the Hawaii Clean Energy PEIS.

On Tuesday evening, about 70 people showed up at McKinley High School in downtown Honolulu to testify on the new study. Jane Summerson, who is managing the federal environmental review process, told the crowd that the PEIS would be neutral and not advocate for any specific technology or location.

"We are not looking at any specific project," said Summerson. "We are not looking at any specific site. We are looking at, theoretically, the broad menu of activities and technologies that could be used in this state."

The new approach to the PEIS mirrors recent policy shifts at the state level. Last year, the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission ordered Hawaiian Electric Co. to put the Molokai portion of the Big Wind project out to bid after Boston-based First WInd missed a deadline to secure land for the project.

The new bidding process is open to any renewable energy technology and location that can reach Oahu by an undersea cable or on Oahu itself. As with the PEIS, the move was in part a response to criticism that options other than building large-scale wind farms on the small neighbor islands hadn’t been adequately assessed.

Big Wind is just one of many renewable energy projects that the state and HECO have pursued, but in the past officials have said the wind farms are critical to meeting Hawaii’s clean energy goals.

A new request for proposals is expected to be out sometime this year. State officials said that they hoped to have the new PEIS completed in about 18 months, in time for the company or companies who are awarded a contract with HECO to make use of it.

New PEIS is Wide Open

The new $2 million study will look at the range of renewable energy and energy efficiency options in Hawaii. It has been broadened to include all of the islands. And it is focused not only on sources for electricity generation, but also alternative energy sources for ground transportation and options for the electric grid.

The study will explore sources such as wind, solar, geothermal, biofuels, wave energy, hydroelectric and ocean thermal energy conversion, according to Spaeth.

“It is broad because it’s really meant to align with the broader Hawaii clean energy goals and scope,” he said.

The U.S. Department of Energy is a partner in the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative, which sets out aggressive mandates for transitioning to renewable energy. The plan calls for switching to 40 percent renewable energy by 2030, while reducing electricity generation by 30 percent. The state also has a goal of reducing the consumption of oil for ground transportation by 70 percent by 2030.

The Hawaii Clean Energy PEIS evolved out of public hearings last year on the Big Wind studies. State and federal officials were criticized for not studying other alternatives to wind in meeting Hawaii's clean energy needs.

Spaeth said that the $3 million spent on the Big Wind studies wasn't a waste.

“We’re trying to take advantage of the information that was generated and think it will be very helpful and informative and keep us from restarting from ground zero in terms of gathering information,” he said.

The studies conducted by AECOM on the wind and undersea cables projects will be made publicly available at the end of September, said Maria Tome, a program manager at the state energy office. That way it can still help guide wind developers if they are to pursue a project in Maui County.

While, AECOM's study delved into the granular details of proposed wind farms and undersea cables in Maui County, the new PEIS will be less specific and more "generic," as one of the contractors for the study explained.

North Shore Rep. Gil Riviere, known for his strong environmental record, attended the meeting and asked how the study was valuable if it didn't delve into greater details and allow comparisons of sources such as solar, wind and ocean energy.

Summerson responded that the study would look at all the specific technologies, but that they were not going to advocate for any single energy source as the correct solution.

Costly Mistake Not to Study Alternatives Sooner

The state awarded a $3 million contract to AECOM to do the studies in 2010 as part of the inter-island wind and undersea cable projects.

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