Winds of Change

Kaheawa Wind Power brings alternative energy to Maui.

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Jill Engledow

windmills mauiThere is no windier place on Maui than Kaheawa Pasture, high in the West Maui Mountains above McGregor Point. Soon, a row of giant generators will capture this powerful wind and use its energy to light up nearly a tenth of the homes on  the island.

In a world where energy costs rise daily, on an island far from any source of oil, these giants have the potential to save Maui Electric Company (MECO) consumers some $70 million over the next 20 years, increasing Hawai‘i’s self- reliance while reducing the amount of fossil-fuel pollution released into a fragile environment.

Kaheawa Wind Power’s generators will be Maui’s first commercial-scale wind-power project. Twenty General Electric wind turbines atop 180-foot towers will march in a single row two miles long across an Ukumehame pasture 1,900 to 3,000 feet above sea level. Enormous hubs with rotors 112 feet across will produce as much as 30 megawatts (MW) of energy—equaling up to 200,000 barrels of oil per year, enough to run about 11,000 households, or 9 percent of island energy requirements. Developer Kent Smith estimates the project will save the average Maui household $120 per year at a crude oil price of approximately $50 per barrel.

With expertise supplied by international wind-power developer UPC Wind Partners, LLC, and local connections provided by Makani Nui Associates, Kaheawa Wind Power has a lease on 200 acres of state land above Mana-wainui Gulch and all the necessary permits. The project could be on line in April 2006.

Not all winds have been fair ones for this wind farm, however. Kaheawa’s history goes back to 1996, when Zond Pacific, Inc., first proposed a wind farm at Ukumehame. The project changed hands several times before UPC and Makani Nui formed Kaheawa Wind Power in 2004.

Environmentalists have kept a sharp eye on the planning all along. Ed Lindsey, representing Na Kupuna o Maui, began riding herd on the project 10 years ago. At first “mortified” about how much native forest would be lost, Lindsey and others worked with the developers on a plan to mitigate the problem by creating a nursery, replanting displaced native species and actually increasing the size of the dryland native forest.

A massive road being built to reach the site ran into trouble shortly after it was started in September, when Department of Land and Natural Resources officials ordered work stopped and told the builders “to implement mitigative measures to reduce potential run-off, rock fall, and erosion.”

Sean Lester of Maui Tomorrow, an environmental advocacy group, says DLNR did the right thing by ordering the road builders to stop work while they corrected the problems. “Maui desperately needs this project,” with fuel costs rising and availability tenuous, so Maui Tomorrow has supported Kaheawa. But “we’ve just got to make sure it’s done correctly,” Lester says.

The need for alternative sources of energy is one of several reasons the project is finally moving ahead a decade after it was first proposed, says Mike Gresham, president of Makani Nui Associates.

Technological innovations over the past 20 years now allow consistent energy capture from the wind. One key innovation, “ride-through technology” means wind turbines can remain online without damage to the electrical grid even when there is a problem elsewhere in the system. This is a particularly important factor when, as on Maui, a single system supplies the entire community.

High-priced energy makes investment in renewable resources financially desirable, and state tax credits encourage it.

And several years of monitoring have shown that the Kaheawa site provides a robust wind source, one of the best in the world. “It’s not just a wet-finger-in-the-air kind of guess,” Gresham says.

One longtime Maui renewable-energy expert, Laf Young, told Maui No Ka ‘Oi he thinks the extreme wind turbulence at Kaheawa will tear apart these machines, as it did the one he helped set up on the Ma‘alaea coast 20 years ago. Young says turbulence is the hardest wind quality to characterize in advance. Gresham disagrees, saying the company’s meteorologist and an independent engineer have done careful studies that included monitoring turbulence, and adding that the equipment is specially engineered for severe conditions.

The 20-year agreement under which MECO will purchase power from Kaheawa will provide consumers with a hedge against rising oil prices: although 30 percent of the rate will fluctuate based on actual fuel costs, 70 percent will be based on a flat rate of approximately eight cents per kilowatt hour.

According to Gresham, the company calculates that the agreement will save consumers $70 million or more over the life of the project. In other areas of the country, he says, consumers have actually been willing to pay higher rates to encourage the use of renewable power.

Kaheawa Wind Power is a partnership of UPC with the principals of Makani Nui, Mauians Kent Smith and Hilton Unemori. Makani Nui owns 49 percent of the project, with UPC holding 51 percent.

UPC built, owns, and operates approximately 640 MW of wind projects, including more than 900 utility-scale wind turbines in Europe, and is developing a further 1,500 MW of wind projects in North America. Kent Smith leads Smith Development, which has built a number of housing projects on Maui and now Hawai‘i Island. Hilton Unemori heads ECM, Inc., an electrical engineering company. Together, Makani Nui and UPC arranged for financing of $69 million to complete the project.

The companies have entered into a statewide joint development agreement to bring more wind projects to Hawai‘i. If they are successful, they will significantly increase the contribution of wind power to the state’s energy mix, of which only 2 percent now is provided by wind power. Two wind stations on the Big Island now supply about 11 MW of energy, and two others in the planning stages, also on the Big Island, are expected to provide a total of 31 MW.

Other recently proposed wind projects have been canceled, including one at Kahua Ranch on the Big Island and another at Kahe Point on Leeward O‘ahu that met with considerable community resistance to its placement in a culturally sensitive area.

On Maui, “the community at large has been 100 percent supportive,” says Gresham.

Gresham says the company has taken extra care to mitigate ecological impacts. In addition to the replanting of native species, it has come up with a voluntary Habitat Conservation Plan in which it will spend a minimum of $1 million over the next 20 years looking out for, researching, and nurturing the few native birds and an occasional Hawaiian hoary bat thought to frequent the area. Gresham says a Habitat Conservation Plan “requires you to provide a net benefit to the species” by mitigating any harm caused by birds flying into wind turbines. Kaheawa will hire two biologists to study seabirds in the area and the effect of the turbines on them, and is supporting nene (Hawaiian goose) propagation efforts in Olinda.

One aspect of the project likely to have a continuing impact is the five-mile access road near McGregor Point on the Lahaina Pali Highway. Installing the road was expensive (costing $6 million) and technically challenging. Road slope had to be carefully calculated to haul up heavy equipment because the terrain is extremely steep.

Despite its rocky beginning with a cease-and-desist order from DLNR, the road will have long-term benefits. Gresham says it will cut a three-hour trip on the existing jeep trail to half an hour, allowing better access for natural resources enforcement and firefighting high up the mountain. “The road will certainly help us to do routine maintenance on power lines” up the mountain, says Maui Electric President Ed Reinhardt, who adds that the company has been looking forward to the renewable energy offered by this project for many years.

But the road’s first job will be to haul up the enormous pieces of wind towers, nacelles, rotors, and the equipment to handle them. For example, it will require 16 semi trucks just to move parts for the crane to lift the nacelles, streamlined 51-ton units that hold each machine’s power-generating components.

The most visible impact to the rest of the island will be the sight from South Maui and Upcountry of 20 towers on the mountain. The towers will be invisible from the Lahaina side and from most of the Pali. But from the south side, “there’s going to be something where there wasn’t anything before. And that’s the only downside,” Gresham insists. So far, South Maui residents have been supportive, with some testifying in favor of the project at public hearings, and the Kïhei Community Association hearing no complaints from its constituents.

Everything else about the project is positive, Gresham says. Pulling power from the wind will lessen the amount of pollution produced by fossil fuels, reduce the state’s spending and dependence on imported oil, and provide both short-term and long-term economic benefits, including more jobs, taxes, and lease rent paid to the state.

“We hope that it’s a model project,” Gresham says. “We’d like this to be a project everybody’s proud of.”


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