Opponents of proposed wind farm projects on Molokai and Lanai said they have more work to do now that the state Senate passed a bill Thursday that would set up the regulatory framework for development of a high-voltage electric transmission undersea cable to link the state into a single power grid.
"There's a long road ahead for us," said Robin Kaye, a spokesman for the group Friends of Lana'i, which opposes a proposed wind farm project on the island's north end because of the development's cultural and environmental impacts. "Our focus in the next six to nine months is to educate folks on Oahu how much this is going to cost."
Even as its proponents maintained that Senate Bill 2785 would only allow the Public Utilities Commission to regulate an undersea
cable if it were constructed, Kaye said the bill is a "gift to the developers."
Bill proponents said that cable would allow power sharing between islands, increasing the reliability of electricity and stabilizing costs in Hawaii, where residents pay about $200 a month for electricity, or three times the national average.
Kaye maintained that the bill would have electricity consumers pay for the cable's costs, now estimated at $1 billion.
Molokai resident Kanohowailuku Helm, president of I Aloha Moloka'i, a grass-roots group, said his and other groups would remain opposed to the proposed undersea cable and a planned wind farm on the west side of the Friendly Isle.
"We are not going to change our stance no matter what the Legislature says or wants to do," Helm said via cellular phone at the Capitol after the bill was heard.
Helm said he wasn't surprised the bill was passed because he could see how legislators were leaning in favor of the measure when Molokai residents spoke to them just prior to Some senators Thursday expressed dismay that House members did not want to take it to a conference committee session and instead pushed it forward to a floor vote.
West and South Maui Sen. Roz Baker expressed her disappointment that the House did not permit a conference committee review of the bill. In conference committee, legislators could have developed a clear policy on where the cable would go and the need for community consensus, she said.
Baker supported the bill but added that any project that goes forward must be "pono," commercially feasible and not "saddle ratepayers with unreasonable costs." The Public Utilities Commission shares those concerns, she said.
Sen. J. Kalani English also voted in favor of the bill, but with reservations. He emphasized that the Legislature isn't approving the cable project and had no concrete proposal to consider.
He explained that Molokai and Lanai residents have reservations about the legislation and said the residents just want to continue their lifestyle.
English compared plans for wind projects on small islands such as Molokai and Lanai to someone building a large project in the backyards of Oahu lawmakers.
"You would have the same feelings, too," English said.
He assured constituents on Molokai and Lanai that it was unlikely that they would be included in the cable network.
"The production is on the Big Island and Maui. The need is on Oahu," English said.
But he noted that "Maui has become the energy hub" with various alternative energy projects, including Kaheawa Wind above Maalaea and the Auwahi Wind on Ulupalakua Ranch lands, photovoltaic systems and other alternative energy projects.
English said the undersea cable would provide a "firm power backup" for these alternative energy sources on Maui. The same could be done for the Big Island, which also has alternative energy sources, such as geothermal energy.
Although the two Maui senators voted in favor of the bill, both Kaye and Helm said they were appreciative of the senators' comments that noted Molokai and Lanai residents' concerns.
But, "sadly, they supported it," Helm said.
Sen. Mike Gabbard of Oahu, chairman of the Energy and Environment Committee, told his fellow senators that the cable is "not a new idea" and reminded them that the state pays $4 billion to $6 billion a year for oil.
"This is, in a word, stupid," he said.
Gabbard added that the volatility of oil prices could "catastrophically impact our way of life."
For those concerned about Oahu taking in all the energy from the Neighbor Islands, Gabbard said that the Neighbor Islands also enjoy some of Oahu's fruits because the islands' residents are subsidized with state support for roads and social services.
Sen. Sam Slom of Oahu opposed the bill, agreeing with Kaye's contention that utility customers would pay more if the undersea cable were developed.
He added that Neighbor Island residents were not given enough opportunity to provide input on the measure.
"They have not had a full opportunity for open discussion and debate," he said. "Why do we have to go ahead now?"
The bill passed the Senate by a vote of 22-3. Senators voting "no" were Slom, Clayton Hee and Suzanne Chun Oakland. Ten senators, including English, voted "yes" with reservations.
The bill will be forwarded to Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who has 45 days to take action. His administration proposed the measure, and during his State of the State address, Abercrombie said there was no legislation more critical to Hawaii's future than the undersea cable bill.
Maui Electric Co. expressed support for the bill in a statement Thursday.
"Connecting our islands' separate electric grids is an important step and a critical factor in accepting and safely integrating additional renewable energy on our systems. We must work to get our state off of imported oil and ultimately stabilize electricity rates for our customers," the utility said.
* Melissa Tanji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Associated Press contributed to this report.