It’s about noon, and a light rain is tapping the corrugated metal sheet above my head. The skies are dark gray, but the land is still serene and beautiful. I’m in Kanaio, sitting at wooden bench next to some bleached livestock skulls and a pen holding a pet, a very large black pig named Mamani. The place is Bully’s Burgers, located on the Triple L Ranch and named for the ranch’s late owner Louis “Bully” De Ponte, and I’ve just devoured one of their six-ounce, 100 percent natural grass-fed burgers (disclosure: Bully’s is a MauiTime advertiser).
Even as remote as this place is, there was a time when the little roadside burger stand was booming. Then Sempra U.S. Gas & Power and BP Wind Energy started hauling wind turbine parts through Kanaio to Kahikinui, a few miles down the road. That required intermittent road closures, which devastated Bully’s Burgers. The eight-turbine, 21 megawatt (MW) wind farm officially came online last month, and Bully’s is only now recovering some of its lost business.
At Auwahi’s official opening in late February, federal, state and local officials cheered the wind farm as the future of power generation. “We’re always talking about sustainability and being independent,” Hawaii Lt. Gov. Shan Tsutsui said, according to a Feb. 25 post from PR Newswire. “This goes hand in hand with a lot of our initiatives. It’s definitely a step in the right direction and we look much forward to other projects.”
But when I asked current Bully’s owner Paige De Ponte about that wind farm, and the possibility that Sempra may expand the operation, she was quiet. She refused to say anything bad about Sempra or the road closures that hurt her business (De Ponte did say that Sempra compensated her for losses she incurred). But she also expressed great love for the land that surrounds her ranch.
“Sustainable development is always a positive thing,” De Ponte told me by phone (her son Zach and daughter Maurissa run the burger stand). “But where we’re at, this is truly Maui’s last frontier. My husband died and I was left with a lot of land. I consider myself a caretaker for our future generations. I have strong feelings about that. They did make good with us, but it’s kind of like The Descendants. Once that land is gone, it’s gone.”
In fact, Sempra is proposing a considerable expansion of their Auwahi wind facility, according to a two-page company fact sheet obtained by MauiTime. The fact sheet, dated February 2013, states that the company wishes to build nearly 40 more turbines on “100-200 acres.”
But there’s a catch. The expansion, according to the fact sheet, would only happen if the proposed undersea power cable between Oahu and Maui goes in. That’s because the Sempra fact sheet makes clear that their new wind farm’s 120 megawatts of renewable energy would all go to Oahu.
“The 120MW project will entail the installation of approximately 39 wind turbines, based on a generation capacity of approximately 3 MW per turbine,” states the fact sheet. “Support infrastructure includes required access roads, wind turbine assembly area, overhead and underground transmission and collector lines, potentially an AC/DC converter station on Maui, an on-site substation, an expanded MECO substation, and operations and maintenance facilities.”
The proposal appears consistent with a recent call from the state Department of Hawaiian Homelands (DHHL) for projects that would generate more renewable energy on Maui. On Mar. 13, the DHHL posted a public notice titled “Proposed Disposition Of Hawaiian Homelands For Renewable Energy Projects.” According to the notice, the public was invited to comment at DHHL hearings in Wailuku Mar. 20-21 on “renewable energy projects on Hawaiian home lands at Kahikinui, Pulehunui, and Honokowai” (the hearings took place after MauiTime went to press this week).
The fact sheet does not mention a projected cost for the proposal. Art Larson, a spokesperson for Sempra, confirmed the details in the fact sheet, but said he did not have a cost estimate.
Larson added that Sempra’s proposal was a direct response to DHHL’s call for renewable energy proposals for Maui. “We are one of about 50 respondents,” Larson said.
An official with DHHL did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
According to the fact sheet, the development timeline depends on when state officials release a Request for Proposals (RFP) for the undersea cable. In any case, the fact sheet states that new federal Renewable Fuel Standards coming online over the next decade and a half impose a deadline on the project.
“A commercial operation date of December 31, 2019 is anticipated due to the 2020 RFS [Renewable Fuel Standards] requirements for the state of Hawaii, and Oahu in particular,” states the fact sheet.
Doug McLeod, the County of Maui’s Energy Commissioner, said he was familiar with Sempra’s proposal.
“It’s far too large for Maui’s needs,” said McLeod. “Maui today is 30 percent renewable. This is one of a number of likely proposals that would go in if there’s a cable to Oahu. Sempra’s plan only comes into effect if the cable goes in.”
The Sempra fact sheet does list a couple positive effects for Maui, should the company expand the Auwahi wind farm. “Once construction is complete on the Auwahi Wind Farm Expansion, water will be provided to the local Kahikinui community,” states the fact sheet, though how much water is left unsaid.
The fact sheet also mentioned that even though the project’s 120 MW would get sent to Oahu, it still might lower electric rates on Maui. “Exporting the wind power from the Auwahi Wind Farm Expansion to Oahu provides the unique opportunity to potentially lower Maui’s electric rates,” states the fact sheet. “Both the Oahu and Maui electric grids would become much more stable, as the undersea cable would be bi-directional. Old, inefficient and highly polluting generating facilities on Maui and Oahu could be utilized only on an as-needed basis.”
When asked about the effect of the wind farm expansion on Maui consumer electric rates, McLeod wasn’t so sure there would be much of a positive effect for this island. “It won’t raise Oahu’s rates,” McLeod said. “It would give Maui the same rates as Oahu. But today, the difference between the [two islands’] rates isn’t what it used to be.”
As for when that cable might go in, McLeod said that no one really knows. In the summer of 2011, the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC) directed Hawaiian Electric Co. (HECO) to submit a draft RFP for at least 200 MW of renewable energy “using any available technology generated on or for delivery to the island of O‘ahu.” On Oct. 14, 2011, HECO posted that RFP, which carried the catchy title “Draft Request for Proposals for Renewable Energy and Undersea Cable System Projects Delivered to the Island of O‘ahu.”
After HECO received, according to a rundown of the RFP history on their website, “a voluminous number of comments from the public,” the utility “made extensive revisions.” Though HECO was supposed to release the final RFP on the undersea cable last summer, it now says it should come out “sometime in the second quarter of 2013.”
According to McLeod, the cable is still a long way from approval. First, he said, two separate Environmental Impact Statements are required, including one for the route the cable would take.
“The main issue is whether the route goes through the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary,” said McLeod. “That may make it impossible.”
After that, the state PUC would also have to approve the cable.
“There’s no reason for people to get super excited today,” said McLeod. “It’s just being floated as a proposal. Sempra may not even submit it formally. The reality is there are going to be lots of things proposed if there’s a cable.”
(A version of this story first appeared on our Mauifeed.com blog on Mar. 14.)