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MECO official says undersea cable is a ‘sensitive issue’

Maui County Energy Commissioner Fred Redell (from right), Maui Electric Co. President Sharon Suzuki, MECO Power Supply Manager Mat McNeff and Maui Tomorrow Vice President Doug McLeod discuss Maui’s path to 100 percent renewable energy during a community forum Thursday night at the Kaunoa Senior Center in Spreckelsville. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

While Maui Electric Co. is re-examining the idea of an undersea cable between Maui and Oahu, the utility understands that it’s a “very culturally sensitive issue,” a MECO official said Thursday night during a community energy forum in Spreckelsville.

Late last year, the state Public Utilities Commission asked MECO to conduct another study on the two-way cable. MECO had previously evaluated the proposal in 2013 as part of its power supply improvement plan, Mahina Martin, MECO director of government and community relations, said Friday.

“We determined at that time that it was not feasible,” Martin explained. “In updating those plans . . . the PUC requested that we reassess the scope and requirements for interisland transmission.”

Mahina said that MECO will provide the PUC with an evaluation of “the costs, impacts and operational considerations,” just as it did in 2013.

The cable proposal whipped up widespread reaction among residents when Hawaiian Electric Co. began its search for possible developers to take on the project in 2011.

Plans for the high-voltage cable estimated that it would stretch 112 miles and go as deep as 2,100 feet. Former Gov. Neil Abercrombie was among the supporters of the cable, as well as the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, which said the cable would increase renewable energy use and save Oahu and Maui ratepayers up to $423 million from 2020 to 2050.

Others, however, wondered whether the cost would outweigh future savings. Estimates for installing the cable have ranged from $600 million to $1 billion.

Florida-based energy company NextEra had been considering the high-voltage cable project, but discussions were dropped after the PUC rejected its proposed merger with Hawaiian Electric Co.

Community activist Tiare Lawrence, who shared a panel with Martin during Thursday’s forum, said she was concerned that it was only “a matter of time before the interisland cable was on the table again.”

“The idea of an interisland cable has received a lot of opposition on Molokai, Lanai and Maui,” Lawrence said. “From a community standpoint, we do ask the following questions.

. . . Will it have impacts to our natural resources? Why should outer islands supply power to urban Oahu? And to avoid similar protests like the TMT (Thirty Meter Telescope), how can we have more community input on this matter?”

Martin said that MECO is taking account the comments at community meetings.

“While the studying may be occurring in order to fulfill that request, as a company we understand that it’s a highly sensitive issue,” Martin said.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.