Power from water projects discussed

A discussion about the future of hydroelectric power on Kaua‘i brought many in the community together Thursday night at the Lihu‘e Civic Center.

Existing hydropower systems on the Garden Isle and challenges to hydropower were discussed at the monthly Apollo Kaua‘i meeting.

Hydropower captures the kinetic energy of water as it moves from higher to lower elevations while passing through a turbine.

According to the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, hydropower plants in Hawai‘i operate on “run-of-the-river” flows without dams. It is considered an “intermittent” resource in Hawai‘i because stream flows vary from seasonal rainfall.

Guest speaker Randy Hee, chief executive and president of Kaua‘i Island Utility Cooperative, talked about water power basics and different types of existing hydropower projects.

The biggest hydropower project on Kaua‘i is at Wainiha on the North Shore, Hee said.

More than 100 years old, the Wainiha project was developed by the McBryde Sugar Company and is now owned by Alexander and Baldwin.

KIUC owns an Upper Lihu‘e hydro plant and a Lower Lihu‘e hydro plant.

Hee said the hydro plant with the most potential is the upper Wainiha project. The upper Wainiha project would be upstream from the existing plant.

“The upper Wainiha is probably the best project out of all of them,” said guest speaker Rep. Mina Morita, D-14th

District. “The road (leading to the project) was done. The EIS was done and approved and they had permits.”

But one of the biggest challenges to completing the project is the transportation of the large equipment needed.

The bridges on the North Shore cannot handle the heavy loads, Hee said.

There are currently no plans to move forward with the upper Wainiha project, officials said.

Other potential hydro projects include the Hanalei River, the Wailua River, Mana Ridge and the Lumahai River.

Calling it a “pipe dream,” Hee said his dream hydro project would be on the Lumahai River.

“It’s one of the few streams that haven’t been diverted,” Hee said. “It’s in pristine condition.”

New hydropower projects have been met with local opposition for aesthetic or environmental issues.

According to a KIUC Renewable Energy Technology Assessment completed in March 2005, hydropower projects on Kaua‘i are site-specific and depend on rainfall, topography, geology and water use.

Hee said other challenges include land and water issues and cultural and environmental impacts.

“If you put in a diversion (to the stream) you can cause harm to the habitat,” Hee said. “Any stream that has a diversion has harmed that stream and to what degree is somewhat unknown.”

Ben Sullivan, former chair of Apollo Kaua‘i, said the discussion was educational and the group learned that the most significant challenge of hydropower is the environmental impact.

“(Hydro) is an ongoing discussion in the community as a way to decouple ourselves from oil dependency,” he said. “It’s another potential resource to capitalize on as a community.”

Finding a way to communicate with the community about ways to make the project go better is key, Sullivan said.

But there seems to be an attitude from the community about choosing the wrong project that would not be fruitful or have the potential for loss, he said.

Sullivan said hydropower is a really viable resource, but the issues are about negotiating a price and getting the community involved.

“We can no longer look at projects in a vacuum,” Sullivan said. “We need to look at the risk of the project versus the risk of doing nothing.”

• Rachel Gehrlein, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 225) or rgehrlein@kauaipubco.com

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