A Bright Idea?

Proposed amendment would allow solar energy on agricultural land.
By Sean Aronson

On the surface, increasing the number of solar panels on Molokai would seem to be a no-brainer – nearly everyone is on board to reduce Hawaii’s dependence on fossil fuels –but things are rarely as simple as they appear.

Placing solar panels on agricultural land presents complex and possibly dangerous situations, at least according to several concerned Molokai residents.

“Even issues that appear black and white are not,” says Molokai kupuna Judy Caparita. “Everything is much trickier than we are led to believe.”

The Resolution
Caparita gave public testimony last week before the Molokai Planning Commission (MoPC).

The topic was a proposed amendment to an earlier bill that would exempt land owners from needing a special permit to build a solar energy facility on agriculturally zoned land.  Under the current law, owners would have to go before a planning commission to get special permission, a process that often takes months and sometimes years.

The Maui County Planning Department is in support of the resolution and was on Molokai looking for recommendations and input from the community.  Maui County planner Joe Alueta presented the amendment as a way to incentivize renewable energy construction in the county.  He says this legislation is in line with a bill passed in 2008 that encourages solar energy throughout the state.

Act 31 of HB 2502, signed into law by Gov. Lingle in April of last year, called for “the increased use of Hawaii’s abundant renewable energy resources, including solar.”  Alueta believes opening up more land for solar power is a good thing, but admitted regulation may be necessary.

Currently, land designated as agricultural cannot support solar facilities.  The solar use would have no limitation in size and would not be required to be ‘incidental or subordinate to an agricultural activity.’

Alueta says other government bodies, such as the Department of Land and Natural Resources, expressed concern about the size of the solar facility and the possible eyesore it may cause.  He also says several members of the Maui County Council wanted to establish a limit on the height and area used for such energy production.  

Alueta says 10 acres would likely be the limit for this use, with anything larger requiring a special permit.

Concerns about the resolution were expressed from at least two members of the MoPC. Steve Chaikin, chair of the committee, wanted to know what lands were designated as agricultural on Molokai.  Until that is known, Chaikin says, he will not sign off on this amendment.

He also says other permitting exemptions have led to abuse.

“The problem is this [exemption from permitting] tends to be used by people who don't want to do agricultural uses,” says Chaikin. “They just find something else to do with their land.”

Chaikin wondered whether the proposed change in the law would allow an outside developer to purchase many acres of land and then built a solar facility that powered a private development.

“They [developers] could put something in our [Molokai's] backyard that we don’t necessarily want in our backyard,” says Chaikin.

Molokai resident DeGray Vanderbilt is concerned with the overall loss of agricultural land in Hawaii and wondered whether solar power was the best use for that land.

In the past five years, Hawaii has lost 14 percent of its farm land, according to the latest farm census by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  Consequently, the state is importing more of its food from the mainland, a situation that has many worried about the future.

Despite the potential pratfalls, some Molokai residents support the amendment as a way to reduce the high energy cost on the island.

Juanita Colon is one of them.  Colon is general manager for Kawela Plantation Homeowners’ Association.  She says the proposed solar resolution would significantly reduce the energy costs to the association and its homeowners.  

The Association, with more than 100 houses on six-thousand acres on Molokai’s east end, provides water to every one of its residents.   This service currently costs about $100,000 per year to maintain.  It’s far from sustainable, says Colon.

Colon says the Association is in the process of doing a feasibility study in order to determine the potential savings from converting to solar power, as well as determining where they might build a solar facility.

Colon says solar power is preferable to wind energy for her Association because it is more aesthetically pleasing – there are no giant windmills to look at.  The carbon footprint would also be less, says Colon.  She also mentions the unpredictability of wind generation on this island as a negative.  

“We [Kawela] are in the sunniest spot on the island,” she adds.

Colon says the Homeowners’ Association would need government support in the form of subsidies or tax breaks in order to be able to afford the building of the solar facility.  But its members are in support of anything that raises the reliance on renewable energies and reduces the energy costs in the long run.

Jody Allione, a consultant with an alternative energy company, was contacted by Colon to assess the potential for solar power in Kawela.  Allione says it would take approximately 40-50 acres of solar facilities to power the entire island.  

She argues solar would make sense for Molokai because there would be less unpredictability in the electric rates. She referenced the recent wild fluctuations in price, with the rise and fall of gas prices, as a top reason to make the switch.

The Future
Rather than give its approval to the resolution, the MoPC deferred its decision until the next meeting.  The commission told County Planner Joe Alueta that they would like to see a map of the areas on Molokai that are designated agricultural.  They would also like to do more research in the solar area before forming an official opinion.

Unofficially, some members did hint at their concern with the proposed amendment.  

If Molokai wants to produce more food on its land, not less than this exemption may not be a step in the right direction, says MoPC member Lori Buchanan.

"We can't be the breadbasket [for Hawaii] if our land if full of windmills and solar panels," says Buchanan.

If you would like to send the Molokai Planning Commission an email you can do so – planning@mauicounty.gov.  Make sure to include Molokai in the subject.

The next meeting will be held on Feb. 25th at Mitchell Pauole Center.  Check http://www.co.maui.hi.us/index.asp?NID=193 for the time.


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