Hawaii's 'Big Wind' Power Project Stirs Up Fans, Foes In Hawaii, hearings begin Tuesday for the state's extensive windmill project. The plan is for a massive wind farm with hundreds of windmills on several islands. It's the largest renewable energy project for a state racing to get off oil.
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Hawaii's 'Big Wind' Power Project Stirs Up Fans, Foes

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Hawaii's 'Big Wind' Power Project Stirs Up Fans, Foes

Hawaii's 'Big Wind' Power Project Stirs Up Fans, Foes

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

In Hawaii, company is planning to build a massive wind farm with hundreds of windmills spanning multiple islands. It would be the biggest renewable energy project for a state racing to get away from oil. And today, hearings begin on the so-called Big Wind project.

From Hawaii Public Radio, Ben Markus reports.

BEN MARKUS: This is how Hawaii gets almost all of its electricity now.

(Soundbite of generators)

MARKUS: A few massive generators burn oil imported on a never-ending line of tanker ships. Hawaii would rather get electricity from this.

(Soundbite of windmill)

MARKUS: The blades of a 42-story high windmill turn slowly at the Kahuku Wind Farm on Oahu's North Shore.

Mr. KEKOA KALUHIWA (Director of External Affairs, First Wind): They're big but they're beautiful, they are.

MARKUS: Kekoa Kaluhiwa is with the company running this farm, First Wind. The state is hoping to build up to 200 more of these windmills on the small and windy islands of Lanai and Molokai, then connect the islands to the heavily populated Oahu with an undersea cable.

The catalyst for Hawaii's unprecedented push to rid itself of oil came in 2008 when prices spiked. Hawaii felt it at the gas pump, at the supermarket, and in record high electric bills, which were already the highest in the nation.

Robbie Alm is vice president of Hawaiian Electric, the state's largest utility.

Mr. ROBBIE ALM (Senior Vice President of Public Affairs, Hawaiian Electric): That was a very dark time in our relationship with our customers, and part of the problem for us is we were completely helpless; helpless as a company, helpless as a state.

MARKUS: And Alm says that's why they're also moving aggressively towards locally grown biofuels and solar and waste-energy conversion and biomass and whatever other technology pops up.

Josh Strickler is with the State's Energy Office. He says of all the projects, none is bigger than the neighbor island wind farms.

Mr. JOSH STRICKLER (Facilitator of renewable energy programs, State Energy Office): Without it, hitting our targets gets harder and harder to do, and so...

MARKUS: Almost impossible.

Mr. STRICKLER: It could be almost impossible.

MARKUS: By law, 70 percent of energy must come from renewable sources by 2030. But, similar to the Cape Wind project in Massachusetts, not everyone here welcomes the windmills.

(Soundbite of people talking)

MARKUS: Protesters gathered at a recent informal legislative meeting at the state capital. Robin Kaye, with a group called Friends of Lanai, stands next to a scale model of the island. He points to the hundreds of miniature windmills that cover an area called Garden of the Gods.

Mr. ROBIN KAYE (Friends of Lanai): So you tell me, if that was in your backyard whether you'd object or not. NIMBY's relative.

MARKUS: Kaye and others are unwavering in their opposition despite an effort to assemble a generous public benefits package, including a share of the wind farm's profits. Think Alaska pipeline money. Some, meanwhile, are using their opposition to leverage a better package.

Walter Rittie is a longtime activist on Molokai. He says for native Hawaiians like himself, the wind is a revered god.

Mr. WALTER RITTIE (Activist): So until the state realizes what they're dealing with, that it's not a commodity, it's a cultural resource that Hawaiians have high regard for and part of our heritage, then we're in for a train wreck here.

MARKUS: A train wreck the state hopes to avoid. Rittie is well known in Hawaii as a powerful protester.

Back at the wind farm on Oahu, First Wind's Kekoa Kaluhiwa says getting power from the wind is perfectly suited to Hawaii's respect for the environment.

Mr. KALUHIWA: Being from Hawaii, native Hawaiian, it's all about - to me anyway - how we tie in our values as a people, how we use today's technology with the values that we've, you know, grown up with. So this is a beautiful marriage of the two, I think.

MARKUS: He adds that it's pono - a Hawaiian word meaning righteous or morally proper. If everything falls into place, the first windmills could be up by 2016.

For NPR News, I'm Ben Markus in Honolulu.

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