A plan to convert Molokai to a 100 percent renewable electricity system using Molokai Ranch land was met with questions and cautious skepticism at an informational meeting for the Maunaloa community Saturday afternoon.
The Ikehu Molokai project, being promoted by renewable energy developers Princeton Energy Group, proposes building an 80-acre array of photovoltaic panels in the Manilla Camp area that will provide 80-90 percent of the island’s electrical needs. The additional 10-20 percent will come through the existing power plant after the gensets are converted from diesel to biodiesel fuel.
In order to provide nighttime power, some of the solar power would be dedicated to a hydroelectric system. A pond near the PV panels would hold water at night to be pumped about four miles up the mountain into two reservoirs during the day. The downhill flow of this water at night will capture its hydroelectric potential to use when the sun is down. An alternative to this pump storage hydroelectric system could involve various battery technologies.
The generated power would be sold to Maui Electric Company at a reduced rate, which would become rate relief for Molokai customers. “It won’t cut rates in half but it will bring costs down quite a bit,” said Steve Taber of Princeton Energy. If Molokai cuts its ties to MECO and forms its own energy co-op, as has been proposed, Princeton would have no problem working with that, said Taber.
Taber led the Maunalaoa public meeting, the sixth small meeting held on Molokai so far to discuss this plan. About 40 residents of Maunaloa and the West End area showed up. A similar meeting was held the night before in Manilla Camp but was poorly attended.
Taber explained that Princeton has already entered into an agreement to lease the needed land from Molokai Ranch. He also made it clear that Molokai Ranch serves as the landlord for this project and is not involved in the management or implementation of the plan.
The exact role of Molokai Ranch in this project was an important question for many of those in attendance. Since Molokai Ranch shut down its operations overnight in 2008, leaving 120 people without jobs, and then threatened to end its utility services before raising the rates substantially, the residents of the West End have lost trust in the island’s largest landowner. Molokai Ranch can reject a wind power element of this project but that is the extent of their power, said Taber.
“This could be a win-win for everyone,” said Taber. He explained that this system would lower electric rates, help the environment, stabilize the power grid to eliminate brownouts and blackouts while improving the maintenance of the Pala’au power plant.
“The fact that we are aiming for 100 percent renewable is pretty exciting,” said Taber. “This could be a great example of what renewable energy can do, not just for Hawaii, but for the rest of the world.”
To make this happen, Taber added, “community support is essential.” If the community does not agree with this plan Princeton will back off and not try to force it through. “Life is too short,” Taber said.
Princeton Energy plans to return to Molokai in February with more details and a couple of alternative plans. A meeting with the entire island will be announced on the Ikehumolokai.com website to discuss a more detailed plan.
At this time, Taber is not certain if the Hawaii Public Utility Commission, or any other state agency, will require an Environmental Impact Statement for this project. Whatever state and Maui County permits are required will need to be garnered fairly quickly. To take advantage of a 30 percent tax credit — which translates into rate relief for Molokai electric customers — the project will need to be completed by the end of 2016. “This is a very rapid schedule,” Taber said.
The project will cost “tens of millions of dollars” that will come from a group of investors that have not yet been determined, said Taber. These investors, who are often banks and insurance companies, will help establish a separate management company with Princeton that will be responsible for the continued maintenance of the operation. “As we bring in investors you will meet them,” Taber assured.
The number of jobs, and whether those jobs will be filled by local labor, was another big question. Taber said the project will create about 100 construction jobs for one year around the Kaunakakai area. A small number of additional jobs will be permanent. Who gets hired will be up to the investment group, said Taber, but he believes many jobs will be held for local people.
Questions regarding water evaporation from the hydroelectric system (minimal or none), noise from the pump system (less than the existing power plant), and a backup system (biodiesel) were also asked.
“We want to meet your partners and Molokai people must have jobs,” said local kupuna Judy Caparida. “This must be pono, if not you’re out of here! We want to trust you but we got to know what you’re doing,” she added.
Raymond Hiro, who works for Molokai Ranch, reiterated Aunty Judy’s sentiments. “Everything has to be transparent and on the table,” said Hiro. “We need to go through the protocols of the island and the kupuna,” he added.