OMAO — A low rumbling echoes through stands of banana trees and heliconia that surround Holly Van Every’s three acres on Omao’s Upa Road.
The property is home to a couple of lily-laced ponds, surrounded by dozens of native and canoe plants, like breadfruit, as well as species like moringa.
Van Every bought the property as a retreat from her life in the Los Angeles music scene, but the singer and bass guitar player says it hasn’t been the sanctuary she envisioned.
“The noise, it starts up at 7 a.m. and you can hear the whine,” she said. “With the Green Energy Team clearing albezia, I can’t write music. We’re frustrated.”
The project is feeding Green Energy Team’s biofuel power plant with the slow-burning albezia wood and creating renewable electricity for the island, which is sold to Kauai Island Utility Cooperative.
The albezia stands are located throughout the island. Right now, Green Energy Team’s efforts are focused on the stand in the Omao area, which will be harvested, then replanted.
The process repeats itself every five years, according to Gilles Lebbe, Green Energy Team general manager. Once the albezia trees are wiped out, they’ll be replaced with eucalyptus, he said.
“We mechanically fall invasive albezia trees (and) bring the trees to a landing area where the trees dry for four to six weeks,” Lebbe said. “We then chip the trees and haul the woodchips to the plant.”
Work is scheduled to run from 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, but during the week of Nov. 5 a crane at the plant broke down.
“We had to work during the weekend so the plant could continue operating,” Lebbe said.
Complaints from neighbors have reached Green Energy Team’s ears, Lebbe said, from nearby residents, concerned community leaders and the state Department of Health.
“We responded to these complaints,” Lebbe said.
But, in the midst of those community concerns, Green Energy Team secured a Community Noise Permit on Nov. 13 from DOH, “just in case we would exceed permissible noise levels,” Lebbe said.
The permit is valid until the end of March 2018.
Current activities aren’t violating the state noise ordinance yet — the limit is 70 decibels (dba) or lower at the property line, and Lebbe says noise levels at full operations are at 87.7 dba. The noise levels read 70 dba or lower 600 feet away from the chipper, and lower than 60 dba 1,200 feet away from the chipper.
“On the Omao parcel we don’t plan to chip closer than 1,200 feet from any residence,” Lebbe said. “Although we don’t need a CNP for our activities, the Department of Health requested we apply for a Community Noise Permit just in case.”
But five more months of the constant hum is a maddening proposition for Van Every, as well as her boyfriend Brad Weigle, who also lives in the area.
“It sounds like a truck is constantly going up a hill next to the house,” Weigle said. “At first I thought it was an airplane, but no. It’s the chipper.”
Lebbe said Green Energy Team is “doing all we reasonably can” to limit the noise coming from their activities by performing noisy activities as far as possible from neighbors, using state-of-the-art equipment, and not working at night or on weekends during normal conditions.
Van Every suggested building a chipping center somewhere off the beaten path, but Lebbe said it’s too difficult to transport albezia.
“It’s a branch and brittle tree and doesn’t produce straight logs that can be transported safely and efficiently in log trailers,” Lebbe said. “The only way to transport albezia safely and efficiently is in the form of woodchips.”
While both Van Every and Weigle are in support of renewable energy and the increase of clean power on the island, they question Green Energy Team’s methods, because burning wood does produce emissions.
“I really don’t see it as clean energy,” Weigle said. “You have emissions when you’re burning that, too. I don’t see why we can’t put solar in that spot instead of replanting trees to burn.”
But the sun isn’t always shining, Lebbe pointed out. He said a big advantage to fuel-generated power is that it is reliable.
“KIUC is making great progress in storing intermittent power (solar and hydro), and making this power available when needed, but, in my humble opinion, every renewable grid needs some fuel-generated power to sustainably cover the base load,” Lebbe said.