Thursday, June 30, 2011

Big Projects Panel Let’s ‘Big Wind’ Off Easy

It’s no knock on attorney Jerry Sumida to suggest that the Big Wind segment of last week’s Big Projects panel at the Plaza Club didn’t quite match the build-up. (We would have posted about the June 23 event earlier but for a getaway week in Waikoloa on the Big Island. If any place in Hawaii deserves the “Big Wind” designation, this is it.)

Careful as always to measure his words, Sumida presented the basics of the Big Wind energy project without prejudicing the issues, going only so far as to suggest “not making or delaying a decision (on the project) is actually making a decision. Either we remain stuck in our dependence on oil as we are today or we do something about it.”

Some of the pre-event publicity implied that NIMBYism might thwart plans to build 200 megawatts of wind energy generating capacity on Molokai and another 200 MW on Lanai, but Sumida didn’t go there. He instead noted that Hawaii exports about $4 billion annually to buy the oil that runs 95 percent of the state’s economy.

“What could we do with these funds if they stayed here,” he asked, saying the choice is between exercising greater independence in our energy future or not. Big Wind could contribute to achieving that independence, he said, but questions need to be asked and answered for the benefit of all stakeholders.

Biggest of the Big

The Big Projects panel sought to understand why large projects like Big Wind, the Super Ferry and Honolulu rail seem to take forever or don’t succeed at all. In that regard, former Governor Ben Cayetano dominated the event with his recitation of why he’s fighting the rail project. We wasted no time addressing his comments at our sister blog, Yes2Rail.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

“Hey, Gang! Let’s Put On a Show and Call it ‘Big Wind’”

6/20 Update: PBN story says "HEI's credit rating could complicate Big Wind."
It’s whacky, but when we read the editorial in the Star-Advertiser this morning on the Big Wind energy project, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland popped into mind.

The connection with the young actors of the late ‘30s and early ‘40s was the over-the-top enthusiasm for Big Wind in some circles – the same kind of boundless enthusiasm oozed by Rooney and Garland on the silver screen in their “backyard musicals.” Maybe you’ve seen them on TV.

The lasting impression from those musicals was the brainstorm the actors would have about what they could do with all their singing and dancing talent. “Let’s put on a show!” one of them would shout, and then they would. It was cute, and audiences loved it for a while.

In the end, audiences cooled to the cuteness, and we’re wondering if that will be the ultimate outcome of Big Wind, the plan to build 400 megawatts of installed wind energy capacity on Molokai and Lanai and transmit it to Oahu with seafloor cables.

There’s plenty of enthusiasm for the project – from Hawaiian Electric Company, the State Energy Office, the Public Utilities Commission, wind energy producers and landowners Castle & Cooke and Molokai Ranch.

But the ranks of the skeptical and unenthusiastic are growing. Neighbor islanders appear united in near-unanimous opposition to forever turning over thousands of acres of their islands’ open space to the farms. Environmental organizations and even the County of Maui are complaining about the lack of transparency.

And then there’s the presumed inadequacy (from where we sit, at least) of putting Oahu’s energy eggs into one neighbor island basket and relying so heavily on the intermittency of wind power. Oahu needs base-load power, but even an optimistic assessment of Big Wind’s potential suggests that only about 160 MW would be available on average for Oahu’s grid. OTEC, anyone?

Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney never had to worry about whether their on-screen musicals would succeed. MGM had it written into the script.

Big Wind’s script is only a broad outline, however, and there’s still doubt about who some of the major players will be. Then there’s the potential for strange plot twists, such as possible State condemnation of Molokai land to bypass local opposition. And you thought Spider Man has had trouble on Broadway….

Big Wind will be part of a panel discussion on Thursday sponsored by the Hawaii Venture Capital Association and ThinkTech under the broad title, “What makes Big Projects so hard in Hawaii?The public is invited to register for the paid event.

Monday, June 13, 2011

‘Big Wind’ Starting To Look Like a ‘Big Denial’

Honolulu Star-Advertiser graphic
The “denial” of which we write is the string of denials issued by the Public Utilities Commission to parties that want a seat at the table in the formal consideration of Big Wind, the 400-megawatt neighbor island wind power project. The Friends of Lanai and Life of the Land both have received rejections of their bids to intervene in PUC dockets on the project, and now the County of Maui is asking for more Big Wind transparency.

Another “denial” might be the apparent tendency to dismiss neighbor island residents’ concerns about the impact of adding 200 or more wind turbines to their rural landscape. Some in the community are crying NIMBY and implying that not-in-my-backyard concerns are illegitimate.

The Hawaii Venture Capital Association is hosting a panel discussion on June 23 titled “Big Projects – Why Are They Stuck?” The event’s online announcement says “the program will examine some of the Big Projects we’ve been waiting for and try to find out why they haven’t been completed and what should be done.” Big Wind and the Honolulu rail project are on the agenda.

The apparent willingness to embrace Big Wind also is a denial of sorts of the promise of base load technology to address Oahu’s future electricity needs. Some see more promise in geothermal than wind energy for that purpose, whereas we continue to believe ocean thermal energy conversion is the best long-term answer.

What seems certain at this time is that Big Wind will continue to provide its share of "Who-Shot-JR” moments in Hawaii’s long-running renewable energy soap opera.