With Lanai residents paying some of the highest fuel prices in the country, the island has potential to set the pace for Hawaii in shucking dependence on petroleum and achieving energy sustainability. It's unfortunate the combination of landowner economics and social inertia won't allow it.
Castle & Cooke clearly sees a potential, but the corporate interest is in tapping the energy resources of Lanai for best return on investment. It's understandable that the company is less interested in alleviating long-term costs for residents when its goal is generating revenues from assets.
But the company's initial investment in La Ola, the 1.5-megawatt photovoltaic farm, demonstrated the potential. La Ola can generate up to 30 percent of the island's daytime energy needs, although its size and capacity were limited by caps on state and federal investment credits that made the project financially viable.
The more ambitious proposal for a 300-megawatt wind farm is geared solely to generate revenues from sales of energy to Oahu, providing no benefit to Lanai residents on their energy costs. It's not surprising residents object to a perceived threat to their lifestyle and environment.
It may be expecting too much for a corporate landowner to offer residents a stake in renewable energy developments. Government could, but deficit budgets make it difficult to support energy innovation that will mostly reward a private company.
For Lanai, too, a major obstacle is that its energy resources are intermittent, which require a firm-power source to support 5 to 7 megawatts of base load - what Maui Electric's high-cost diesel generators provide. The plan for an undersea transmission cable to transmit power from Lanai to Oahu could tie Lanai to the Oahu grid, but that puts the island at risk from a cable failure.
Still, there is a model demonstrating the potential for a small island with a small resident population to achieve energy self-sufficiency. The island is Samso, in the Baltic Sea, which a decade ago relied on undersea cables for fossil-fuel-generated electricity.
In 1997, Samso's residents responded to a national challenge for a community to achieve energy self-sufficiency, with the community required to ante up a share of the costs. The Denmark government eventually put in $90 million.
At 43 square miles, Samso is smaller than Lanai's 140 square miles but with a population of 4,000 to Lanai's 2,800. On Samso, new community energy projects include 21 wind turbines, central solar heaters for home heating as well as three biomass plants that burn straw from island wheat farmers, also for home heating.
Residents installed their own small-scale turbines, photovoltaic systems and solar water heaters. A dairy farmer has heat exchangers that cool down the milk and warm his home. Another farmer raises canola, processing the oil into biodiesel that he uses in his tractor and vehicle.
Through cooperatives, residents own shares of the 3-megawatt turbines that generate all of the electricity needed by islanders, with adequate excess to provide up to 20 percent of demand in Denmark. Denmark in turn benefits from being on a power grid with Sweden and Norway that provides on-demand firm power from hydroelectric plants.
Samso also risks power shortages from cable failures. But its systems are proving viability of reliance on fluctuating renewable energy resources - when residents of a community are involved in development and risk-taking.
(References: "100 percent renewable? Danish island experiments with clean power," Scientific American, Jan. 19, 2010, www.scien tific american.com; "Samso: Denmark's renewable energy island," Wind-Works.org, Feb. 19, 2006; "Samso island is face of Danish green revolution," Spiegel Online, Oct. 22, 2009, www.spiegel.de/international)
* Edwin Tanji is a former city editor of The Maui News. He can be reached at hakumoole firstname.lastname@example.org. "Haku Mo'olelo," "writing stories," is about stories that are being written or have been written. It appears every Friday.