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Despite taking some heat, South Maui solar project moves forward

Appeal of project’s approved agreement with electric company is pending

A 15-megawatt solar, 60-megawatt-hour battery storage project proposed in South Maui received key approvals from the Maui Planning Commission on Tuesday. The project is planned for 150 acres mauka of Maui Meadows. Photo courtesy of Innergex Renewables

A South Maui solar and battery proposal on about 150 acres mauka of the Maui Meadows subdivision moved forward Tuesday as the Maui Planning Commission gave key approvals to the project, which is slated to come online in 2023.

Commissioners voted 7 to 1 during an all-day meeting to grant Paeahu Solar LLC a county special use permit and also approved upgrades to an existing ranch road for temporary access to the project.

Paeahu Solar, which is being developed by Canadian-based Innergex Renewables, includes a 15-megawatt ground-mounted solar photovoltaic system coupled with a 60-megawatt-hour battery energy storage system. The solar panels will take up 50 acres on the lands owned by Ulupalakua Ranch, located in a county agricultural district near Wailea.

Innergex said that the project would help stabilize the grid, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and provide enough electricity for about 6,900 Maui homes.

Neighbors in the Maui Meadows community closest to the site, however, have opposed the project, citing concerns over drainage, proximity to their properties, changes to views and construction impacts.

Kawika Freitas was the only commissioner to vote against the project on Tuesday, while new member Kimberly Thayer recused herself, noting that her mother and her firm were paid consultants on the project and handled informational meetings for the project.

Freitas said that he was excited about the project at first but had concerns over drainage as well as utility lines that he wanted buried in the event of wildfires.

“I don’t think the drainage was done even satisfactory. It’s not planned well,” Freitas said.

“If those two things were fixed, the line and the water, I’m all for it.”

Commissioner Dale Thompson said the project was needed and that testifiers who were opposed to it all had solar panels on their own homes.

“Everyone wanted it, they just didn’t want it in their backyards,” Thompson said.

Commissioner P. Denise La Costa added that “2045 is going to be here before we know it,” referring to the state’s goal of reaching 100 percent renewable electricity by 2045.

Twenty people testified Tuesday, with about 15 in opposition, mostly neighbors closest to the site.

Maui Meadows resident Todd Logrande said that when it rains, water flows from the ranch lands and “fills up my backyard.”

“Once you take away all the grass and change that whole terrain, the trees (and) all that, the absorption is going to be quite a bit different,” he said. “I don’t see how it could do anything except but contribute to more runoff.”

Maui Meadows Neighborhood Association President Debra Greene emphasized that “we are in favor of solar power, make no mistake about that.” But she said as far as she knows, there is no other solar project that is as close to homes as theirs is.

“This is an industrial-scale project that shouldn’t be so close to a residential neighborhood,” she stated.

However, Maui Meadows resident Tom Croly said he supports the project, as it will help generate renewable energy. He pointed out that the project is a permitted use in the area and that landowner Ulupalakua Ranch can do what they want on their land.

Croly compared it to construction that he had to endure next door to his house that his neighbor “had his right to do.”

Project officials said they’ve been encountering similar concerns since they reached out to the public in 2018.

Leslie McClain of Tetra Tech, which is working with Innergex on the project, told the commission on Tuesday that peak flows of rain runoff will be either reduced or unchanged for the gulches that pass through the project area. The preliminary grading and drainage plans will not increase peak stormwater flows to the downslope areas, nor will they create new flood hazards, she said.

McClain added that developers have revised the project layout in response to neighbors’ concerns and increased the setback of the solar arrays to a minimum of 300 feet away from the property line — equivalent to the length of a football field — compared to the original 200 feet.

The project’s fence line will be set back a minimum of 250 feet, and project roads and drainage infrastructure will be set back between 250 and 300 feet from the property line. McClain said that the racking system for solar panels will also be shorter than the original design to address concerns over impacts to views.

Developers said the project area was chosen for its gentle slopes suitable for construction, avoidance of sensitive cultural and environmental resources, access to existing transmission infrastructure near the site and available capacity at the Auwahi Switchyard for the project’s interconnection with the electrical grid.

Paeahu Solar was among the projects submitted to Maui Electric Co. in 2018 in response to a request for proposals for renewable energy that would help stabilize and lower power costs while reducing the state’s reliance on imported fossil fuel and cutting greenhouse gas emissions, according to Innergex’s website.

The project’s long road to approval has included a contested case hearing in December 2019 with Pono Power Coalition, which consists of Maui Meadows and Kihei residents as well as supporters. The coalition raised issues over the cost of electricity from the project, pointing out that other renewable projects approved by the state Public Utilities Commission during the same procurement process had lower prices.

In October, the PUC approved a 25-year power purchase agreement between Maui Electric Co. (now Hawaiian Electric) and Innergex Renewables. The utility will pay 11.7 cents per kilowatt-hour to receive power from the project.

The Maui Meadows Neighborhood Association and Pono Power Coalition had petitioned to intervene on the project, saying they wanted to provide the Maui Planning Commission with more information on the project’s impacts.

However, the commission denied the request, noting that the neighborhood association seemed fractured in its opposition to the project and that its 91 members made up a small portion of the subdivision’s 600 lots.

Attorney Lance Collins, who represents the Pono Power Coalition, confirmed Wednesday that an appeal on the PUC decision is pending before the Hawaii Supreme Court and that he filed the opening brief about a week ago.

Paeahu Solar developers said via email on Wednesday that they were “disappointed” about the appeal, noting that they have held numerous community engagement meetings and addressed many of the concerns, even updating their project.

They said the company will continue to work toward acquiring the various approvals needed to commence work, including stormwater, grading and building permits.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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