Mega solar farm in Kekaha approved

LIHU‘E — The county Planning Commission on Tuesday approved a solar farm nearly three times the size of the state’s largest solar facility in operation.

When completed, Kikiaola Solar in Kekaha will be generating an estimated 3.5 megawatts of power. The largest solar farm in the state, completed in January in Kapahi, generates 1.2 megawatts.

“From the environmental perspective it makes a huge, huge impact,” said David Ushio of owner/developer Pacific Energy Partners. “Three thousand tons of carbon dioxide is not going to be released in the air because we are using sunshine instead of fossil fuel.”

Ushio said the solar farm will be able to power some 1,000 homes, while sparing the island from importing about 7,000 barrels of oil per year. The proposed farm will be equivalent to planting 2,500 acres of trees annually, he added.

The project is planned for 20 acres owned by Kikiaola Land roughly 900 feet north of Kikiaola Small Boat Harbor in Kekaha. The land had been used in the past for sugar cane, and was most recently being used as a cross-pollination buffer between corn fields.

Kikiaola Land CEO Peter Herndon said the project got significant support from the Westside community during public hearings.

West Kaua‘i Business President David Walker said Kikiaola Land has always been a prime benefactor to the West Kaua‘i area, and the project will provide short- and long-term benefits for businesses there.

“We really feel the process is as important as the project,” Ushio said.

Timing can be everything

A new state law, federal incentives and dropping solar panel prices may add to the project’s viability.

On Monday, Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed Senate Bill 631, which states that solar projects on agricultural B lands do not have to seek approval from the state Land Use Commission, according to Ushio.

The Kikiaola Solar project is an industrial use on agricultural land, necessitating special permits to go forward.

“We are grateful the governor signed the bill,” he said. “We would be stuck for another year.”

Ushio said the project will be built using financing from the private sector, with no cost to Kaua‘i Island Utility Cooperative and its members. Federal incentives will also help the project, which will cost between $20 million and $30 million, he said.

Shares of Yingli Green Energy, the Chinese company chosen to manufacture the solar panels, fell to $7.17 per share Tuesday, its lowest rate in a year. The company’s shares were valued at $38 in 2008, before experiencing a spiraling fall that most major solar panel manufacturers have been feeling.

But Yingli CEO Miao Liansheng reportedly told Bloomberg last month that the declining price “isn’t a bad thing, it’s a good thing.” Yingli CFO Li Zongwei told Bloomberg that the company is “looking forward to what will happen after the downturn because we are well prepared for this downcycle.”

Miao said falling profit margins were a positive development because sales will continue to rise and the downward pressure on prices will help more people use solar power, according to Bloomberg news reports.

Ushio said Pacific Energy will likely break ground by the end of the year and start construction sometime in 2012.

“Solar is not the absolute answer to everything, but it’s a good start,” he said.

• Léo Azambuja, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 252) or leo thegardenisland.com.

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