A Mighty Wind

Maui is on the cutting edge of energy production with a new wind farm—so why isn’t everyone happy?

Almost overnight, Maui has a new landmark: 20 towering windmills strung along one of the most visible ridgelines on the island.

The project had been stopping and starting for 10 years—long enough for many residents to forget they’d given the go-ahead to erect the towers, 180 feet tall without their rotors, along a windswept, rocky spine of the west Maui mountains overlooking the island’s central valley.

photo: Matt Thayer

They didn’t have long to get used to the new view. Just six months after developer Kaheawa Wind Power began pouring the foundations this winter, the turbines were in place and started turning in June. The quickie construction has left some Mauians with a touch of buyer’s remorse.

“Many of us were not paying attention,” says Hawaiian cultural activist Charles Kauluwehi Maxwell, who calls the towers “obtrusive,” saying they desecrate a slope rich in shrines, heiau and other cultural sites. “We thought it was going to be past the pali. All of a sudden it went up on the ridge above Ma‘alaea.”

Others look at the towers and see a monument to a green future. “It’s a helluva lot better than a giant smokestack burning diesel fuel,” says Lance Holter, chairman of the Sierra Club Maui Group.

Holter hopes the wind farm, standing as one of the first major sources of alternative energy on the island, possibly able to supply power equivalent to 244,000 barrels of oil per year, is just the first step in Maui’s energy independence, and that other renewables, from fuel-producing crops to solar cells, will soon follow.

Mike Gresham, president of Makana Nui Associates, a partner in Kaheawa Wind Power, hopes more Maui residents will see the towers from a positive vantage point.

“The benefits are huge, and they far outweigh the visual aspects in my mind,” he says. “I do think people will get used to it, and I hope they will come to look at it with a sense of pride.”

The site above Ma‘alaea, 200 acres on state conservation land running from 1,900 to 3,000 feet elevation, was picked because it had the best wind on the island, he adds. When it blows, it averages 25 miles per hour, hard enough to have the turbines operating at 40 percent of net total capacity year-round, compared to an average 30 percent capacity for most wind farms.

“It’s considered a very good site,” Gresham says.

That breeze is expected to power 10,000 to 11,000 Maui homes, satisfying 9 percent of the island’s energy needs.

Meanwhile, wind power is blowing into other parts of the state. Gresham’s company has received a contract with the Kaua‘i Island Utility Cooperative to create a smaller wind farm, with seven turbines, on the Garden Island.

“We know oil is finite. We know it’s a dwindling resource,” Gresham says. “The issue is, how do we wean ourselves and move into a more sustainable environment for ourselves and our children? I think this is a step in the right direction.”