Three offshore wind projects that have lain dormant since 2015 are being revived after President Joe Biden called for the nation to produce 30 gigawatts of offshore wind energy by 2030.
Hawai’ians are proving less than enthusiastic. Despite a state mandate requiring that all of Hawai’i’s electricity come from renewables by 2045, many Hawai’ian environmental activists are fighting proposed onshore and offshore industrial wind projects.
Big Wind Proposals
In 2015, Danish wind giant Alpha Wind Energy, through its subsidiary AW Hawaii Wind, filed applications for two 400-megawatt (MW) offshore wind energy projects: a 12,000-acre project off Oahu’s South Shore in depths up to 700 meters and an 11,400-acre North Shore project 12 miles northwest of Kaena Point in depths of up to 1,000 meters.
Also in 2015, Progression Hawaii Offshore Wind, Inc. applied for a commercial wind lease for a third 400-MW, multi-turbine offshore wind farm to be located off Oahu’s South Shore. The three proposed projects would comprise nearly 150 giant turbines that proponents say could supply up to 40 percent of Hawai’i’s energy needs.
All three applications stalled. However, they were given new life with the election of Biden. Supporters see offshore wind as critical to the state’s ability to meet its legal mandate to reach 100 percent renewable energy by 2045. To that end, the state has banned issuing or renewing power purchase agreements for coal-generated electricity when agreements expire after December 31, 2022.
Biden’s Wind Windfall
On March 29, Biden provided specifics for his January executive order supporting offshore wind development, including $230 million for port and intermodal infrastructure-related projects. Such projects could support shoreside wind energy projects, including storage areas, laydown areas, and docking of wind energy vessels to load and move items to offshore wind facilities.
Biden also announced the release of a new fact sheet by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Loan Programs Office to facilitate access for the offshore wind industry to $3 billion in funding through the Title XVII Innovative Energy Loan Guarantee Program.
These actions are directed at helping offshore wind developers overcome the wind industry’s ranking (by the U.S. Energy Information Agency) as the world’s most expensive form of energy production after battery storage. Before federal subsidies, offshore wind is currently more than three times costlier than a new combined-cycle natural gas plant.
Hawai’ians Against the Wind
In 2015, Hawai’i was the first state to commit to 100 percent renewable energy, but there are growing signs of buyer’s remorse. Even onshore wind projects have faced spirited protests and multiple arrests, in part because developers placed 170-meter-tall turbines far closer to public areas than is recommended by the World Health Organization.
The Conservation Council for Hawaii, an affiliate of the National Wildlife Federation, is firmly opposed to offshore wind industrial facilities, says Moana Bjur, executive director of the organization. Bjur says most Hawai’ians are opposed as well.
Bjur says the turbines would disturb marine life, scour the ocean floor, and endanger cultural landscapes such as Kaena Point, where native Hawai’ians believe souls leap into the sea after death to be reunited with their ancestors.
“Hawai’ians are concerned about putting up enormous seascape-changing towers in areas where humpback whales give birth and feed, and where seabirds have only recently begun to rebound from prior environmental damage,” Bjur said. “Giant windmills would slaughter the moli or Laytan albatross, shearwaters wedgetails, and other avian species.
“Many Hawai’ians have expressed extreme environmental concerns about offshore and onshore wind, as well as concerns about the land area required for solar arrays, and other concerns about geothermal energy,” Bjur said.
Some Hawai’ians are even considering delaying the ban on coal until 2030, Bjur says.
“People are asking if this [commitment to 100 percent renewables by 2045] can even be done,” Bjur said. “The true reality is starting to hit, and people are rethinking, asking anew, ‘How can we pull this off? Can we? Should we?’”
Calling for Local Control
There may be a possibility “big wind” will simply replace “big oil” and squelch local efforts at community-based renewable energy (CBRE), which is supported by state law, says Travis Idol, president of Hawai’i Interfaith Power and Light.
“The point of CBREs is to empower developers, customers, and communities to design and implement projects that meet local needs and preferences,” Idol said. “Photovoltaic-covered church parking lots, electric vehicle charging stations, … lots of small-scale, enabling projects that communities can develop and be proud of.
“That’s what can drive the renewable energy revolution in Hawai’i,” Idol said.
‘Should Be a Nonstarter’
Big wind, big geothermal, and big solar should all be precluded as undermining local solutions and as threats to the environment, Idol says.
“I think they are wrong to even consider offshore wind projects, which are a bit like figuring out whether and how Hawai’i could power itself entirely by tapping the geothermal potential on Hawai’i Island,” Idol said. “Theoretically, it could, but it should be a nonstarter of an idea.”
Hawai’ians want more than a supposedly objective process; they want local control, Idol says.
“The ‘out of the way so it’s okay’ assumption of offshore wind is disrespectful of the natural environment and the people of Hawaii who care about and have a deep connection to these environments and places,” Idol said.
“It’s not sufficient to have an ‘objective, unbiased’ process in which the most suitable locations for big wind projects are identified, with the goal of optimizing tradeoffs between the cost of putting in the project and the cost to the community of hosting it,” Idol said. “That is the antithesis of place-based, community-centered development.”