Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Solar Siting: The Agriculture-Rural Dilemma & Loophole

This morning someone pointed out to me Henry Curtis' blog post on House Bill 2636 and the negative reaction to the bill by Office of Planning, the Department of Agriculture and comments by former Hawaii Island Planning Director and Board of Land & Natural Resources board member, Chris Yuen. If you are not familiar with the backstory, lacking a purpose clause it is difficult to ascertain why the bill is necessary.  But, overall, they completely miss the point of the bill.

House Bill 2636, SD 2 will require a special permit approval for solar projects larger than 25 kilowatts on a single or multiple lots in conforming or non-conforming subdivisions on Hawaii Island.  The bill was introduced to prevent, from happening again, the problem where a solar developer has dominated the Hawaii Island Feed-In-Tariff program with the purchase of a number of residential lots in several Ocean View subdivisions to site solar panels, which in the aggregate creates a 6.75 megawatt project.  Because of the existing land use and soil classification, the siting of these multiple projects was an outright permitted use within a residential subdivision.

However, the siting of solar projects on agricultural classified lands is not the sole issue here.  This bill is necessary as the result of multiple and systemic failures regarding our land use classification system, permitting processes and the misapplication of the feed-in-tariff program (FiT) by an opportunistic developer taking full advantage of failures and loopholes within various State and County agencies with disparate missions and functions and uncoordinated actions.

The problem starts with the number of substandard subdivisions that were created over 40 years ago on Hawaii Island.  Not wanting to have to bear the responsibility and costs of providing county services to these remote subdivisions, these non-conforming residential subdivisions with substandard infrastructure were identified as Agriculture rather than Rural in the state land use classification system.  While the Office of Planning is advocating to tackle the issue with a broad stroke, the situation needs to be addressed with finesse as it has nothing to do with the use of agricultural lands.  This classification was done for the County's convenience of not wanting to provide County services rather than the use and preservation of agricultural lands for agricultural purposes. Therefore, these early subdivisions should be recognized for what they are, non-conforming residential subdivisions, not agricultural lots.

Lastly, these solar projects confounds the purpose of FIT program and in the aggregate, obviated the competitive bidding process for utility scale projects.  The FIT program which was approved in 2010 by the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission (PUC) was a way to incentivize renewable energy installations with a standardized tariff for projects that were "shovel-ready," that could come online quickly.  The developer went on a buying acquisition in Ocean View and while the lots sat in escrow, the developer went on to dominate the FIT program, placing these supposedly "shovel-ready" projects in the queue back in 2011. Testimony submitted to the Legislature describes the project:
The solar developer, a large overseas corporation, SPI Solar (headquartered in Shanghai) intends to build 25 solar installations, each with a capacity of 250kW, on 25 three-acre lots, among homes, in three subdivisions in Ocean View on the Big Island. 16 would go in the Hawaiian Ranchos sub-division, one in the Kula Kai subdivision, and eight in the Kona South subdivision. (Please see attached map). The last mentioned is completely undeveloped and rich in virgin ‘Ohi’a forest. There is no legal access to the eight lots that SPI plans to lease from the owners. Ocean View is a fast-growing town with about 7,000 residents. Our population doubled between 1990 and 2000, and then doubled again between 2000 and 2010. SPI Solar is able to industrialize our rural neighborhood by taking advantage of the loophole in HRS 205-2. 30,000 panels will be installed, with a combined output of 6.75 megawatts. Each lot will be bulldozed flat edge-to-edge. Each array will have 1,127 panels. Each array will cover more than two acres and will be surrounded by two six-foot-high chain-link fences with cameras and security lights added. This corporation is able to industrialize our rural neighborhood by taking advantage of a loophole in this law, a loophole that HB 2636 would close to prevent future developments. 
Almost six years later, these projects still would require PUC approval for a new substation and transmission line (the applications are currently pending before the PUC) before they can be built.  So much for being "shovel-ready" and with the huge drops in panel pricing, the changing energy landscape, the FIT tariff would be a huge windfall for the opportunistic developer.

Hawaii's 100% renewable goal should not be done at any cost and this type of project is no longer needed, no longer timely and, therefore,  not in the public interest.  Just because this is in a remote area this gross calamity should not be overlooked. This just another eyeopener as to the failure of our land-use policies and a disconnection with our energy policies.


  1. Thanks for sharing and explaining. Living in the Ranchos subdivision, Ocean View, I am all too familiar with this mess. I think the State need to own up to their mistake and either buy out these developers or offer them alternate locations, before our neighborhood is getting destroyed.

  2. good article, well written and on point. Complete and total abuse of the system for profit at the expense of the community.

  3. Your understanding of the situation here in Ocean View is wonderful - I wish you were still involved with the PUC! I will recommend your thorough and yet concise delivery of conveying the situation to anyone who wants to know. Thank you!