Lanai's la ola solar farm is dedicated


POSTED: Wednesday, January 07, 2009

LANAI CITY » Less than a mile down the narrow red dirt road that runs past Lanai's decades-old diesel power plant, a high-tech farm emerges where rows of pineapple grew more than two decades ago.

  ;  A grid of 7,400 tilting photovoltaic panels now cut across 10 acres of the former agricultural land, installed during the past year in an ambitious plan by developer Castle & Cooke Inc. for the island to be entirely powered with renewable energy by 2020.

Castle & Cooke formally completed construction of the largest single-site solar farm in the state yesterday, although it has been pumping power into to Lanai's grid since mid-December. In a blessing ceremony attended by state leaders including Gov. Linda Lingle and Maui Mayor Charmaine Tavares, Castle & Cooke Chairman and Chief Executive David Murdock stressed the need for the state to ease its dependence on oil imports, on which it spends $7 billion a year.

“;Do you realize that when you buy all the fuel that is bought for power you are sending millions and over a period of time, a billion dollars out of the state of Hawaii that should be here,”; he said. “;You are going to see hotels become very, very much less used than they're used now. Well, wind farms, solar farms is another way of creating jobs.”;

The company, which owns 98 percent of the island and employs about 85 percent of its nearly 3,200 residents, hired 24 workers from Keo Construction and Hawaii Island Diggers to build the farm, starting in November 2007. Completion was delayed by eight months to work out permitting problems with the land's agricultural designation, which prohibited the construction of a solar farm.

“;This is one of the biggest, challenging jobs that we did here on the island,”; said Dean Eskaran, a machine operator. Yesterday was his last day of work on the $19 million project, announced by the company in June 2007, although three battery containers have yet to be installed to provide additional power on cloudy days.

The solar farm, built with panels from California-based SunPower Corp., currently produces up to 500 kilowatts of energy, which is expected to rise to 1.2 megawatts upon completion by June. That will be enough to provide up to 30 percent of the island's daily peak electrical needs, which occur between 5:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.

“;This is state-of-the-art in the world,”; said Harry Saunders, president of Castle & Cooke. The panels can be remotely controlled by Lanai utility provider Maui Electric Co. and tilt with the sun for 25 percent more efficiency than if they were fixed.

Tavares said Murdock first approached her about the solar farm soon after she was elected in 2006.

“;He says to me, 'And young lady, you not going to stand in my way are you, we are going to get this done right? You are the boss over here, you just tell everybody what to do and it's going to get done,'”; she said, laughing.

Lanai is also the site of a proposed wind farm that under Lingle's Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative would transfer up to 400 megawatts of wind power via underwater cable to Oahu.

Under a 25-year power purchase agreement approved by the state Public Utilities commission in October, Maui Electric will purchase power from the company for 27 cents a kilowatt hour for the first 10 years, 30 cents a kilowatt hour for the second 10 years, and 33 cents a kilowatt hour for the following five years. The solar panels are guaranteed for 25 years, Saunders said.

Ed Reinhardt, president of Maui Electric, said he was unsure how much relief the solar farm will provide Lanai residents from the highest electric rates in the state, which now top 50 cents a kilowatt hour. Lanai's gas prices are still above $5 a gallon as fuel is first shipped from Oahu to Maui and then to Lanai.

Retired airport maintenance worker Ron McOmber, who attended the blessing yesterday and has voiced concerns about other Castle & Cooke projects in his 30 years on Lanai, said he pays more than $300 a month to power his single-family home.

“;It doesn't make me feel any better unless I see it financially,”; he said. “;There's a lot of people on this island that can't afford the power they have already. What do they do? They pay for electricity and give up something else.”;

Lanai's farm tops the 550-kilowatt installation on the Costco Wholesale Corp. building in Kona, one of the largest in the state. In January 2008, James Campbell Co. announced an agreement with Hoku Scientific Inc. for a solar power plant near the Campbell Industrial Park that would be capable of generating 1.5 megawatts of photovolatic power, but it is not yet in operation.

Commercial roof-mounted photovoltaic systems, which don't include Lanai's installation or units smaller than 100 kilowatts, total about 8.6 megawatts on the Hawaiian Electric Co. grid, according to self-reported data, spokesman Peter Rosegg said.