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Hawaii requires deep pockets -- First in decades

When the Kaheawa Wind Farm connects its 30 MW to Maui Electric Company's transmission lines in April, it will be the first new Hawaiian wind facility in more than 20 years.

The project, owned by UPC Wind of Massachusetts and Makani Nui Associates of Hawaii, is expected to cost between $65-70 million and its 20 GE 1.5 MW turbines will be situated along the southwest slope of the West Maui Mountains -- where winds reach 22 m/s.

"With the great winds in Hawaii, you might think there'd be more wind projects," says Makani Nui's Mike Gresham. "But you better have deep pockets if you're going to pursue something here. For starters, we have to bring a crane across 2400 miles of ocean along with everything else."

There are also considerable land-use and habitat issues, along with cultural concerns that include the religious beliefs of the native people. "It's a very environmentally sensitive project," says Gresham. "We're in a relatively remote location that had an existing jeep trail, so we had to construct an actual road. And we're on state conservation land, so we have to take extra care of native plants and animals."

Largely due to potential impacts on four endangered species -- including the nene, which is the state bird -- a staff biologist has created a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) designed to provide a net benefit to all species. "The HCP is a voluntary process," says Gresham. "It's something we've undertaken because the state wanted it. Of course, it also drives costs -- $1 million is the minimum we'll spend over 20 years, which is the life of the HCP. But we could spend as much as $4 million if there are more impacts than we anticipate. The plan has levels and stages where increasing impacts trigger higher levels of mitigation," he adds.

Then there are grid issues. "Each island here has its own grid, so you're really subject to significant peak and non-peak issues," Gresham says. "I think all these factors keep larger developers away. Kaheawa was actually started in 1996 and we picked up the project two years ago. Until then, nobody was very serious about finishing it because of all the obstacles."

Still, Hawaii is committed to reaching 20% of its energy from renewables by 2020 and that development has to come from somewhere. "We can quantify the environmental benefits," Gresham says. "But in Maui, because fuel costs are so high, we also think we can lower costs to ratepayers. The intangibles are that the community can feel good about making use of a green power source. We've actually had a lot of support. This is my first wind project but I think we're as well positioned as anybody to do it again."

Even so, things promise to get pretty interesting in a city of 140,000 people when all the heavy equipment starts to arrive. "There's one two-lane highway to our site and everything goes through downtown," says Gresham, "So transporting our equipment will be very visible. But I'm hoping the project represents a sense of community pride."

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