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Pulehu Solar project moves forward

Special use permit granted by planning commission

Pulehu Solar is a 40-megawatt solar, 160-megawatt-hour battery project to be developed on about 370 acres makai of Pulehu Road on land owned by Haleakala Ranch. On Tuesday, the Maui Planning Commission approved a special use permit for the project, which is expected to be operational by April 2023. PULEHU SOLAR photo

A 370-acre solar and battery project in Kula that could power 15,000 homes is closer to fruition after the Maui Planning Commission on Tuesday granted a county special use permit for the project.

The commission’s approval by a 6-0 vote — with one member excused and two absent — pushes forward the Pulehu Solar project, which will sit on a portion of a 1,087-acre Haleakala Ranch parcel south of Pulehu Road.

The 40-megawatt alternating current utility-scale solar project with ground-mounted photovoltaic arrays and a 160-megawatt-hour battery energy storage system could be up and running by April 2023. Valued at $102 million, the project will connect to existing 69-kilovolt power lines with the electricity going across the island, according to a presentation by Pulehu Solar.

The project was selected by Hawaiian Electric Co. in its competitive request for proposals for renewable energy.

“I think it’s a great project,” said commission Vice Chairwoman P. Denise La Costa, who made the motion to approve it.

After more than an hour of back-and-forth between Pulehu Solar, commissioners and county officials, Wren Wescoatt of Pulehu Solar said the company would go along with the more than 20 conditions set forth by the Planning Department and work out any issues later on.

One of those conditions involved revegetating the site with native plants after the project is decommissioned. Pulehu Solar wanted the condition to be revised or removed, noting that native plants could be eaten quickly by deer and pigs in the area and an effort would be made to chose plants that are not palatable to the animals.

Pulehu Solar also said in a letter to the Planning Department that plants used in revegetation would also depend on the landowner’s intended use for the site.

Two other conditions Pulehu Solar had wanted to amend dealt with public access to culturally sensitive areas and identification of those sites. Pulehu Solar and two testifiers Tuesday said that cultural practitioners and lineal descendants of the area want to restrict public access to any culturally sensitive sites, which include petroglyphs, for their protection.

However, the approved conditions say that “regulated access for schoolchildren shall be given to the project site and cultural sites on the parcel so they can learn about solar projects, renewable energy and the cultural sites.” Another condition also says that “regulated access shall be given to cultural sites on the parcel for cultural practices.”

Wescoatt said a variety of changes were made to the project after getting community input, including moving features such as the battery system farther away from Pulehu Road, putting in vegetation to screen the project from Pulehu Road, placing the panels at lower elevations and creating wider firebreaks.

He said that multiple studies were done on the site including identification of cultural sites that the project will avoid.

There will also be a 25,000-gallon water tank that can be used in the event of a fire. Wescoatt said a fire mitigation plan is in development and will be shared with the community and the Maui Fire Department.

Glare will be minimized, as the panels will tilt and follow the sun throughout the day, Wescoatt said.

All but one of the five testifiers on Tuesday threw their support behind the project.

Nearby Kula Meadows resident Dr. Kai Matthes opposed it, saying that it poses health risks for the community and the environment by being in close proximity to electromagnetic radiation. He added that it would have potential impacts to views and property values.

Matthes said that neighbors support renewable energy efforts but “are mostly concerned” about the fire risks involved in placing the project on “some of the driest areas of Maui.” He said the 25,000-gallon water tank on the property to help with firefighting efforts is the size of a residential swimming pool and that the proposed firebreaks may not help in windy conditions if the fire jumps.

“We believe a different location for a solar project like this would be better for the people’s safety and our neighborhood,” Matthes said.

He added that the majority of the 16 lot owners in Kula Meadows were opposed to the project, though another Kula Meadows resident, Dr. Michael Brewer, said that many were favorable toward it in a recent email poll this month.

Brewer said Pulehu Solar officials listened to concerns and made changes to the project.

“In my mind they had done a lot to address the concerns of my specific community. It kind of made me feel special,” Brewer said.

He added that he was excited about the project and its potential to power 15,000 homes.

Vernon Kalanikau, a lineal descendant of the area, said he supports the project even though he would rather see solar panels on personal rooftops.

Kalanikau, who participated in studies and advised Pulehu Solar on the cultural aspects of the property, asked that the cultural sites on the parcel not be open to the public, noting how petrogylphs in Olowalu were recently vandalized in an area that the public can access.

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

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