The Big Wind and Underdevelopment on Hawaii

May 14, 2014 by

[This post, originally posted on GeoCurrents, is dedicated to the memory of my father, Michael Pereltsvayg, who passed away in Hawaii, a place he truly loved, in August 2012]


Similar to Corsica, local residents on the Hawaiian islands of Maui, Lanai, and Molokai team up with environmentalists in protest against further development of hitherto little-touched locales. While the potential construction of massive tourism infrastructure is a concern there too, the main issue centers around the Big Wind, a project aiming to provide 400 megawatts of wind power. Wind turbines are to be installed on Molokai, Lanai, and potentially parts of Maui, and the resulting power is to be brought to Oahu via state-funded undersea cable. The project was initiated in October 2008 and was codified by state law (Act 155) in 2009.





Hawaii currently relies on oil for 90% of its energy needs, including electricity and transportation. Some of the state’s oil comes from U.S.-based sources, mainly from Alaska, but 75% is imported from other countries, chiefly in the Middle East. Hawaii relies on fossil fuels more than any other state, spending $6 billion to $7 billion a year on its oil needs (depending on fluctuating prices); in 2008, when oil prices hit $147 a barrel, Hawaii’s bill topped $8 billion. As a result, the cost of electricity in Hawaii is more than double the U.S. average. Furthermore, Hawaii’s combustion of fuel contributes 23 million tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.






While the shift away from imported fossil fuels to renewable and clean energy is critical to Hawaii’s economic security, the Big Wind project remains highly controversial because of its potential environmental and social impacts. The usual environmental complaints of noise from turbines and a dramatic visual impact on the barren landscapes on which they are placed apply to this project as well. Further concerns are raised about the potential threat to birds and other wildlife, as well as the historic, cultural, and archaeological resources at the project sites. Opponents also object to the roads that must be razed and rebuilt to accommodate the large trucks that are needed to bring in the massive wind turbine blades. The inter-island submarine cable that will bring electricity to power-thirsty Oahu will likely affect marine life and fisheries, coral reef, coastal ecosystems and endangered species. Environmental impact will also be experienced at the power-cable landing sites on each island, and where converter stations and transmission lines will connect the power to Oahu’s grid. Critics also point out that the wind farms will tap the resources of Lanai and Molokai to serve Oahu’s population, placing a disproportionate burden on the small communities of those rural islands. Local activists ask what they and their neighbors will receive in return for helping to meet Hawaii’s energy goals.

Activists on Molokai have repeatedly let legislators such as Sen. Mike Gabbard know that practically no one on the islands wants the Big Wind. The protestors claim that the project would desecrate the land, be an affront to the native culture, harm the environment, and pose health risks. On top of that, some say, the entire scheme is actually a huge scam, an example of corporate greed and will only feed Oahu’s excessive demand for air conditioning and everything electric. Only a few residents voiced support for the project, and did so in a manner that journalists have characterized as “tepid”.

In the meantime, Big Wind has run into a number of additional legal challenges. First Wind—the original developer of a 70-turbine, 200-megawatt wind farm on Molokai—missed a March 2011 deadline for showing the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) that it had secured land for its project. The company made several offers for land on Molokai Ranch that were rejected; negotiations for a parcel of Hawaiian homestead land also fell through. Following First Wind’s missed deadline, Molokai Ranch CEO Peter Nicholas announced that he had chosen a new company, Pattern Energy, as his preferred developer, but the PUC ruled in July 2011 that Pattern Energy could not be assigned rights to develop a wind farm on Molokai. As a result of these complications, wind-development efforts are focused on the island of Lanai for the time being.


The situation on Lanai is different from that of Molokai, but here too the proposed 200-megawatt wind farm is highly conroversial, pitting neighbor against neighbor on a small island community of fewer than 3,000 people. Lanai, also known as the Pineapple Isle, got its moniker from the fact that Dole Foods bought the island in 1922, and turned it into the world’s largest pineapple plantation. More recently, the island—or rather the 98% of it not owned by the state—was under the control of billionaire real estate tycoon David Murdock. For more than 25 years, Murdock helped the island’s economy, keeping residents employed at his high-end resorts and golf courses, even though the project was losing money at the tune of $40 million a year. The Big Wind was viewed on Lanai as a way to offset some of Murdock’s losses from other operations and to revive the local economy. In contrast to Molokai, most Lanai residents appear to view the project as a path toward economic revival. The wind farm could bring in $100 million a year and create new jobs. Unions have come out in strong support of the project, as did some local residents. But opposition is growing too, fueled by fears that the scenic island landscape would be ruined by dozens of wind turbines whose power would not be available to local residents and businesses. Many worry about the environmental effects of building and operating the wind farm. Both pro- and anti-wind-farm banners—reading “No Windmills on Lanai!” or “Wind Power – To Keep Lanai Green”—have been draped on buildings and placed in front yards.

In 2011, 88-year old Murdock put the island up for sale, and in June 2012, Oracle Corporation CEO Larry Ellison agreed to purchase Murdock’s share of the island. The sale price was not revealed, but the Maui News reported the asking price was between $500 million and $600 million. The new owner’s involvement in the Big Wind is still up in the air, though Hawaii governor Neil Abercrombie praised Ellison for his “long standing interest in Lanai” and “his passion for nature, particularly the ocean, …well known specifically in the realm of America’s Cup sailing”, as well as his “record of community involvement in medical research and education causes”. The fact that most of the public pro-wind signs have come down suggests that Ellison is leaning against wind development on Lanai.

Lanai is not the only island where major land sales puts into question participation in Big Wind. A significant part of the island of Maui, known as Hana Ranch, is currently up for sale as well. The real estate listing for the property describes the ranch as having:

“nearly two miles of oceanfront property, located in one of the last places in Hawaii untouched by the stresses of urbanization and over-development. Evocative of yesterday’s Hawaii, Hana is famous for its scenic location and idyllic isolation, combined with a rural atmosphere and small town friendliness”.


The ranch lands, which include some 3,000 acres of pasture and 1,500 acres of mountain-side forest preserve, are located around the town of Hana on East Maui; the property reaches the 2,200-foot elevation on the slopes of the Haleakala volcano. The 1,200 head of cattle on the ranch produce 1,000 calves per year. The town of Hana is home to some 1,200 residents and features a handful of souvenir shops, a bank, a post office, a general store, a small hotel, and a restaurant catering to tourists who “survived the road to Hana”, the notorious Hāna Highway.

Known also as the “Divorce Highway”, this treacherous narrow and winding road of about 52 miles (84 km) takes at least 2.5 hours to drive when no stops are made because of its 59 bridges (most of which are only one lane wide) and 617 hairpin curves.

The “road to Hana” is a great reminder that it is not the destination but the journey that matters, and in this case the journey takes one through lush tropical rainforests and bamboo groves, past crystal-clear waterfalls, and by the black sand beach at Waianapanapa State Park.

While numerous tourists take this journey to Hana, Hana Ranch is still one of the most isolated and pristine places in the state. It is owned by Hana Ranch Partners LLC, which at one time included California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who relinquished his 1% of the partnership before entering the gubernatorial race in 2010. The majority owner is a Getty family trust whose principal beneficiary is the son of the late billionaire J. Paul Getty. Other owners include several Montana ranchers and residents of San Francisco Bay Area. In September 2008, Hana Ranch Partners put the property up for sale with an asking price of $65 million, which has since been dropped to $55 million, according to the listing on the Island Sotheby’s International Realty website. According to Hana Ranch Partners, they are seeking a conservation-minded buyer who will preserve the remote rural land and will honor the partnership’s commitment to provide some 100 acres of land for affordable housing. “The members of the Hana Ranch partnership are passionately devoted to conservation and have no intention of selling this property to a developer,” said Harrison Sheppard, a San Francisco attorney who is also the head of the Hana Ranch Partners’ executive committee. This commitment to conservation may also have a fiscal benefit: in November 2002, a portion of the land was placed under a conservation easement, which provides the owners with handsome tax write-off opportunities over a 15-year period.


This is not the first time that a sale of Hana Ranch has raised concerns over potential new development. In 1989, the Keola Hana-Maui group, made up of mostly Japanese investors, purchased the ranch and set off a six-year battle over a proposed golf course and housing project, dividing resident families into those who wanted development and those who wanted to preserve Hana’s rural character. The bursting of the Japanese real estate bubble in the early 1990s, however, put an end to such plans. More recently, local residents have been worried about a 165-acre parcel, formerly part of Hana Ranch, that has been owned by media mogul Oprah Winfrey. Winfrey bought about two thirds of the land in 2002 and the remaining lots in 2005. She originally planned to build three homes, but nothing has been built to date and no permits have been issued. In fact, Winfrey has been praised by local officials and residents for being a good steward of the land. However, much bitterness has been engendered among Maui residents by her construction of  a private road through her Upcountry land in the district of Kula. Unlike most nearby roads, Oprah’s four-mile, 12-foot-wide road is fully paved. It stretches from Piilani Highway in Kihei to Keokoa, near Kula Highway. Locals have been waiting for such a road for 40 years, as it offers a potential solution for traffic congestion in Central Maui, if only the public could use it, which is currently impossible. Instead, they have to drive some 30 miles around:








In January 2011, Winfrey launched her own Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), a project that was initially successful but which subsequently tanked, resulting in a loss of between $100 million and $330 million, according to different estimates. Many Maui residents are wondering if the disappointing figures at OWN will translate into major changes at Winfrey’s holdings on the island. So far there is no evidence that she is planning to sell any of her land. In fact, some journalists have suggested that Oprah “is thinking about making Hawaii her home”, based on a story in the National Enquirer that says that Winfrey has joked that she would move to Maui to run an organic farm if OWN does not succeed. A newly registered business with the name “Oprah’s Farm LLC” suggests that the media mogul is quite serious about her agricultural venture. Since Oprah remains at the top of the Davie-Brown Index (DBI)—a marketing formula which measures a celebrity’s suitability in promoting products—it is believed that “almost anything she touches turns into gold”.

The talk-show-biz-diva-turn-organic-farmer may be getting a new neighbor as Bio-Logical Capital—which describes itself as a land investment, development, and conservation company—is negotiating to buy the 4,500-acre Hana Ranch from Hana Ranch Partners. The head of the Hana Ranch Partners’ executive committee, Harrison Sheppard, said that discussions with Bio‑Logical Capital had not concluded “and there is nothing that is absolutely definite”. Equally unclear are Bio‑Logical Capital’s goals behind this deal. Honolulu Civil Beat reports that the company is interested in buying the historic East Maui ranch to realize its goals of “making long-term investments in projects that heal land and communities through stewardship development” and to “continue the legacy of this remarkable ranch”. But farming is not the only concern of Bio‑Logical Capital, which joined with Pattern Energy to develop a 200-megawatt wind farm on Molokai as part of the controversial Big Wind project. Rumors have circulated that, if the deal with Bio‑Logical Capital goes through, Hana Ranch may become a site for another wind development feeding Oahu. Some people doubt that any new buyer would be able to bring big development to Hana. In addition to state and county zoning requirements, Hana’s remote location serves as a natural barrier to development. Even so, people are nervous about what will happen once the ranch is under new ownership and whether they will be able to maintain the undeveloped character of this remote corner of east Maui.



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