A Public Utilities Commission investigative proceeding on the feasibility of an undersea power cable between Maui and Oahu has drawn comments and interventions from Maui County, environmental groups and developers seeking the job of laying a high-voltage cable 112 miles long and as deep as 2,100 feet.
The project's cost estimates have ranged from $600 million to $1 billion, depending on the cable's route and the source of the estimate.
On July 11, the commission initiated an investigative proceeding to solicit information and establish whether an interisland transmission system interconnecting Maui and Oahu's electric grids may be in the public interest.
In 2011, Hawaiian Electric Co. issued a request for proposals to acquire 200 megawatts or more of new, renewable energy to be delivered to Oahu. It called for solicitations for an undersea transmission cable to accommodate power generation proposals from neighboring islands.
The commission has taken a neutral position on the matter, pending the outcome of the investigative proceeding.
On Monday, Gov. Neil Abercrombie confirmed his administration's support for an undersea transmission cable during his opening address at the Asia Pacific Clean Energy Conference. The governor vowed not to be stopped by opposition from community and environmental groups so that island residents can share renewable energy resources, see a reduction of the state's dependence on imported oil and benefit from lower electricity costs.
Maui Electric Co. President Sharon Suzuki said that the proposed undersea cable also could help MECO improve electricity service while reducing customers' costs and the island's need for imported fuel.
"One of the first things we need to do is determine what such a system would involve and if it would be cost-effective," she said in an email. "The best way to do that is to request proposals so that we can gather information from potential developers about the costs and the energy resources that could be shared between the islands."
The commission's order to initiate an investigation of the undersea cable said that Castle & Cooke's Lanai Wind Farm project kicked off studies for wind integration, routing, cost and the feasibility of that project.
However, "as the result, the initial studies have a somewhat limited focus - on Lanai and/or Molokai and upon use of a transmission cable as a generation tie between the islands, instead of also using an electrical (two-way) grid-to-grid approach," the order states.
In the order, the commission found that how Maui island would be interconnected with Oahu, including high-voltage electric transmission cable configurations, route(s) and capabilities has not been fully investigated or well vetted. And, permitting and infrastructure requirements for an Oahu-Maui island grid interconnection, including on-island transmission upgrades and converter station locations are not well developed.
The commission concluded that "innovative and thoughtful responses from these prospective cable and renewable energy developers, Hawaiian Electric companies and other stakeholders should provide the commission with a sound evidentiary basis from which to determine how and whether an Oahu-Maui island grid interconnection could deliver cost-competitive renewable energy resources from Maui to Oahu, offer lower-cost fossil energy supply to Oahu and Maui ratepayers and provide an option for subsequent potential interconnection of the Hawaii island and Oahu electric grids."
In its July 11 order, the commission named HECO, MECO, the state Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs' Division of Consumer Advocacy and the state's Energy Resources coordinator as parties in the evaluation of the undersea cable project.
On Tuesday, the commission granted intervener status to NextEra Energy Hawai'i LLC, Life of the Land, the Renewable Energy Action Coalition of Hawaii Inc., I Aloha Molokai, Maui County, Hawaii Interisland Cable LLC and First Wind Holdings LLC.
The commission said it is seeking input from knowledgeable stakeholders on:
* The potential costs and benefits of an Oahu-Maui island grid interconnection.
* The best way to proceed with developing such a system.
* The selection process, policy issues and overall objectives on how, where and at what cost an undersea cable system may be developed.
In its order granting the interventions, the commission said the interveners "represent a cross-section of interested stakeholders that are committed to assisting the commission in developing a sound docket record."
NextEra and Hawaii Interisland Cable represent potential developers of a Maui-Oahu grid interconnection, "with both possessing extensive knowledge in the planning and development of undersea cable transmission systems," the commission said.
Renewable energy providers' perspectives will come from First Wind Holdings and the Renewable Energy Action Coalition of Hawaii, it said. The commission noted that First Wind owns and/or operates four major wind farm projects in Hawaii, that when combined provide as much as 150 megawatts to Hawaiian and Maui electric companies.
First Wind has two wind farms above Maalaea and two on the North Shore of Oahu.
In its request for intervener status, First Wind said a Maui-Oahu cable connection could make way for more wind farm development and would allow Maui to benefit from power plants and facilities on Oahu, "potentially allowing MECO to retire some of the expensive baseload units MECO currently designates as 'must run.'"
"This too has the potential to reduce the curtailment of First Wind's wind farms," it said.
The commission said the electricity ratepayers would be represented by Maui County, a major power consumer with a direct interest "in the electricity cost impacts associated with an Oahu-Maui grid interconnection cable."
The commission said "additional perspectives" would be offered by Life of the Land, a nonprofit environmental organization, and I Aloha Molokai, a group with members that include residents, Native Hawaiians, taxpayers, voters, investors and visitors "who have a vested interest in preserving the past, informing the present and participating in guiding the future of Molokai."
I Aloha Molokai's mission is to share information and educate the public on the potential impacts of the Molokai Big Wind project, the commission said.
It pointed out that the scope of the investigative proceeding is limited to an Oahu-Maui island grid interconnection, the group nevertheless asserts that the proposed undersea cables would have an impact on Molokai and its residents.
In its request for intervention, I Aloha Molokai said: "This proposed project stands to change not only the landscape and ocean but also the property values, income (and) well-being of all Molokai residents, and the lifestyles of many Molokai residents who have been practicing traditional methods of survival for generations. . . . Each family of local Molokai residents will be impacted as traditional hunting and fishing grounds are disturbed by the construction and operation of the sea cable."
The Molokai group called the proposed cable a "catastrophic development," and it said that it believes island-specific projects should be explored without the use of interconnecting cables.
"I Aloha Molokai also believes that projects of this magnitude should not be driven by reckless urban consumption," the group said.
In its request to intervene, Life of the Land said: "There are major environmental, social (and) cultural impacts associated with undersea cables that go beyond whether ingenious engineers can design the system, install the system and make it financially attractive. That is not to minimize these important issues, but to stress that the issues are not limited to an engineering question: Can we do it?"
* Brian Perry can be reached at email@example.com.