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Energy Festival Nixed Over Renewable Project Concerns

Amid recent concerns over proposed renewable energy project Ikehu Molokai, I Aloha Molokai (IAM) has cancelled its third annual Renewable Energy Festival that was scheduled for January. The nonprofit feared the event would act as a showcase for Ikehu, falsely implying IAM’s endorsement of the project. While IAM leaders say they feel the project has potential for Molokai, they are not ready to support it based on what they consider to be a lack of public input.

“We do not want [the energy festival] to be used to help push a process that does not have community buy-in yet,” said Kanohowailuku Helm, president of IAM, a local nonprofit that supports community-based energy solutions, in an email to Maui County officials. In the past, the festival has hosted vendors, speakers, and public discussion of energy options for the island and state.

Ikehu Molokai is a proposed project that would use a combination of solar and hydroelectric to generate enough energy to make Molokai’s electric grid 100 percent renewable and lower electric rates. The project is a joint effort between California-based alternative energy company Princeton Energy Group and landowner Molokai Ranch. Nearly 100 acres of solar panels, an approximately 10-acre water reservoir, and a pumping and turbine station would be located above or near Manila Camp residential area outside of Kaunakakai, according to Princeton CEO Steve Taber.

While the solar panels charge during the day, energy would be used to pump about 19 million gallons of water uphill through four miles of pipe to Molokai Ranch’s existing reservoir in the Forest Preserve area, according to Taber. At night, the water would run back down through the turbines to generate a constant flow of electricity.

Despite the potential benefits the project might have for Molokai, IAM officials said they feel adequate community feedback has not been received before moving forward with the proposal. Though still in the early stages of the project, Taber has stated he does not plan to hold meetings with the entire community.

County Endorsement
Two weeks ago, Maui County Mayor Alan Arakawa wrote a letter of support for Ikehu. The letter stated that the mayor had not yet sought input on the project from the County Council, and that the letter did not serve as a substitute for the permits and approval required for such a project under county code.

“We are supporting this project because we believe it is realistic to think that solar pv [photovoltaic] installed… [with federal] tax credit could provide power at a lower cost than the existing MECO operations on Molokai…” states the letter.

The mayor also listed several conditions for the project, including fixed pricing for at least 20 years, a lifespan of at least 25 years for the generation system and the option for purchase of the system by a possible future community cooperative or Molokai nonprofit.

The endorsement, however, has caused IAM additional concern surrounding the project, calling the county’s support of Ikehu “premature.”

Since earlier this year, Molokai Clean Energy Initiative meetings, organized by Helm and IAM with the goal of bottom-up planning for community-based energy discussions, have included active involvement from county energy officials. With the mayor’s endorsement of the project and absence of extensive community input, IAM leaders do not feel Ikehu is following a bottom-up planning model.

“…We think that it is premature for the County to have taken a stance without a general public meeting and the full support of the [county] council,” said Helm in an email to the county’s energy commissioner, Doug McLeod. “…We want to support this, but not if it means a rushed process and questions remain unanswered.”

Tight Timeline Risks Community Support
The project relies on a timeline that includes securing federal tax credits for solar projects that expire in 2016, according Taber. That means the planning process for Ikehu has to be accelerated.

“To get it done, we need to have more than the usual pace,” said Taber. “If we miss that [tax credit opportunity], it would drive cost up too much.”

In a news release this week, IAM listed some questions members are hoping to have answered before giving their approval to the project, including concerns over emergency backup for the system. The Ikehu proposal includes converting Maui Electric’s existing generators at the Pala`au Power Plant from fossil fuels to biodiesel, which Taber said would then act as a backup for the solar/hydro system.

The project calls for generating 25 megawatts (MW), and according to Maui Electric, Molokai’s peak electric load is only 5.4 MW. While some on Molokai have expressed concern about what would happen to the rest of the energy, Taber said because the system relies on solar panels that only generate electricity during the day, the system must produce excess to store for night use.

“This [electricity] is strictly for Molokai, we are not interested in exporting by undersea cable [for use on Oahu, as originally proposed by the state],” said Taber.

Meanwhile, IAM continues to advocate for energy proposals like Ikehu to follow an open, public discussion process.

“The Princeton project could… be a winner, but only if its drivers are willing to brake for democracy,” stated the IAM news release.


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