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The struggle over towering wind farms is at the center of a Honolulu City Council debate

Civil Beat| Kirstin Downey |September 21, 2022
HawaiiImpact on PeopleZoning/Planning

In early September, amid a debate over a larger land use bill, Honolulu City Council Chair Tommy Waters conducted a straw poll asking members how far wind turbines should be located from houses, stores and schools. Seven of the council members indicated they believed the wind turbines should be located at least 1.25 miles away from people, while only two — Brandon Elefante and Calvin Say — voted for a distance of 1 mile.


A backlash has arisen against industrial wind turbines, with Kahuku residents leading the charge, raising an alarm about the problems the 40-story towers constructed there have created for them and for their children — pulsating noises, flickering shadows, and what they say are sleep disruptions, depression and new neurological ailments.

In 2015, the Legislature mandated the state would eliminate fossil fuels by 2045 and turn to renewable energy sources like solar and wind. At first Hawaii residents eagerly embraced wind turbines, eager to do their bit to fight global warming and climate change. But once they were constructed, many people who live near the wind turbines on the North Shore began to have second thoughts.

The reports about the negative ways the wind turbines have already affected people, particularly in Kahuku, are in turn influencing the politicians who represent them, and new rules are being drafted that will change where they are able to locate.

In early September, amid a debate over a larger ... more [truncated due to possible copyright]

     

A backlash has arisen against industrial wind turbines, with Kahuku residents leading the charge, raising an alarm about the problems the 40-story towers constructed there have created for them and for their children — pulsating noises, flickering shadows, and what they say are sleep disruptions, depression and new neurological ailments.

In 2015, the Legislature mandated the state would eliminate fossil fuels by 2045 and turn to renewable energy sources like solar and wind. At first Hawaii residents eagerly embraced wind turbines, eager to do their bit to fight global warming and climate change. But once they were constructed, many people who live near the wind turbines on the North Shore began to have second thoughts.

The reports about the negative ways the wind turbines have already affected people, particularly in Kahuku, are in turn influencing the politicians who represent them, and new rules are being drafted that will change where they are able to locate.

In early September, amid a debate over a larger land use bill, Honolulu City Council Chair Tommy Waters conducted a straw poll asking members how far wind turbines should be located from houses, stores and schools. Seven of the council members indicated they believed the wind turbines should be located at least 1.25 miles away from people, while only two — Brandon Elefante and Calvin Say — voted for a distance of 1 mile.

At a zoning and planning committee meeting on Aug. 25, Elefante, the committee’s chair, was the only council member present to vote for the 1-mile setback, saying he wanted to make sure nothing was done that would preclude the expansion of renewable energy. He quickly added, however, that he was “open to further discussion.”

The discussion foreshadows a big change from current zoning, which calls for only a 1-to-1 setback on turbines. Under existing law, a turbine that is 600 feet high could be placed only 600 feet from the nearest house, or about two football fields away. Under the proposed 1.25-mile rule, the space between a wind tower and a house would need to be 6,600 feet, or more than 10 times as far.

The City Council consensus over the expanded setbacks comes after more than a year of deliberations. They began amid a growing perception that Kahuku had been badly damaged by the government decision to allow Virginia-based developer AES Corp. to build a second phalanx of wind turbines in a small, rural community that already had 12 of them. Now Kahuku has 20.

Although there’s no evidence that wind turbines cause medical problems or health issues, North Shore residents flooded city officials with testimony about what they described as damage to their mental and physical well-being since the turbines began operating. Melissa Kaonohi-Camil, a teacher in Kahuku, told the council her son now suffers seizures which they believe have been triggered by the shadow flickers from the turbines. Saleia Tuia of Kahuku started to cry on Sept. 7 as she told council members that she believed her “health and safety are being threatened every day” since the turbines came.

The Kahuku Community Association “understands the need for clean energy as our communities are experiencing the devastating effects of extreme weather events from climate change,” wrote Sunny Unga, the group’s president. “However we must also strike a balance and put in place regulations to ensure renewable energy projects do not come at the cost of the health, safety and quality of life of host communities.”

Taking all this into account, council member Heidi Tsuenyoshi, who represents Kahuku and the North Shore, sponsored a bill last year to require a 5-mile setback on wind turbines, something that ultimately led to a political compromise of 1.25 miles that many clean energy groups have found acceptable. The change would not help Kahuku but would apply to future projects.

“I really want to take every chance I can get to commend Kahuku for being able to be part of the conversation to make sure that no other community suffers the same fate that they did about having the proximity of these huge industrial turbines next to their schools and residences,” she said at a planning committee meeting on Aug. 25.

Where to put wind turbines has become increasingly contentious elsewhere on Oahu, too.

“It’s a tough topic on a 600-square-mile island with nearly a million people and a legal mandate to get off fossil fuels,” Jim Kelly, a spokesman for Hawaiian Electric, said in an email.

Hawaiian Electric is not contesting the council majority’s position on setbacks, however.

“We have heard the concerns expressed by residents and we never opposed the 1.25-mile setback or the 1-mile setback,” Kelly said.

The State Energy Office, meanwhile, supports a setback of “no less than one mile” from homes and structures, according to Scott Glenn, Hawaii’s chief energy officer, in council testimony in February. Glenn said a greater setback is needed “to protect against various concerns raised by Hawaii residents and communities.”

There are no wind turbine proposals under consideration in the state, said Claudia Rapkoch, a spokeswoman for the Hawaii State Energy Office. But she said more are coming and that they will likely be located on the west side of the island, which has the open land where they can be located.

“Wind is an important part of Oahu’s future energy mix,” she said.

Recent events have underscored the role wind turbines could play in maintaining a stable power grid, and government actions have precluded other options.

At the end of August, the state shuttered its last remaining coal-fired power plant, which supplied 10% of Oahu’s electricity, despite last-minute concerns about global instability caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and high petroleum prices. For years, skeptics had questioned whether shutting it down would be a good idea but the desire to take ambitious steps to combat greenhouse gases and climate change held sway. The Legislature confirmed that decision in 2020.

In August, Hawaiian Electric raised electricity prices on Oahu by 7%, blaming the closure of the coal plant.

The plant shutdown went forward even as the state absorbed the news that a major solar farm developer, Longroad Energy, was pulling the plug on a pair of renewable energy projects on Maui and Oahu, saying that supply chain problems and rising equipment costs made the projects too risky.

Wind power is growing across the country. There are now more than 72,000 wind turbines in the United States, all built since 1980, according to the U.S. Wind Turbine Database, overseen by the U.S. Geological Survey. Most on the mainland are located in places with wide open spaces, like Texas, Kansas or Oklahoma, sprouting on wind-swept plains far from population centers.

More are on the way everywhere because of the liberal tax breaks that have been granted to energy development companies, both wind and solar, under the Inflation Reduction Act, championed by Hawaii’s U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz. The measure seeks to replace fossil fuels, in time, by giving tax credits to alternative-energy developers to help compensate them for unreliable profits and intermittent energy streams. Schatz told Civil Beat that the climate change legislation was “10 times as big as anything we’ve ever done before” and would be an economic boon to Hawaii as well.

That is expected to eventually spur more alternative energy projects in Hawaii — which will bring more wind turbines.

When they first arrived in Hawaii about a decade ago, the turbines were initially welcomed but residents were shocked by their huge size and disturbed to learn they posed deadly hazards for endangered wildlife, particularly the opeapea bat on the North Shore. But opposition hardened when the big towers came to Kahuku three years ago.

Kahuku, known mostly for its shrimp trucks, is now ringed with towering wind turbines that stand 568 feet high, their arms matching the wingspans of a passenger jet. Residents vehemently protested their placement in 2019 and hundreds were arrested for trying to block entry of the construction equipment to the development sites.

It happened during the administration of former Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell. At the time, the protests were shut down by the Honolulu Police Department. But once the towers were erected, many government officials who went out to take a look came back convinced that a mistake had been made.

Rapkoch, of the state energy office, said she gained new appreciation for what Kahuku residents were experiencing after she visited there and saw it for herself. She helped get others to visit, too. She said it is important that future wind development be done with greater attention to the impact on people.

“If you have the opportunity to go out and look at it you will understand why they are concerned about it,” she said. “And as much as I hate the word tradeoffs, we have to look at tradeoffs and figure out how we can do these things that minimize the impacts to the greatest benefit of all, and it’s not to discount the impacts. They are real.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of climate change is supported by the Environmental Funders Group of the Hawaii Community Foundation, Marisla Fund of the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

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