Community talks concerns over new Waikoloa Village solar project

  • Sam Ley (left) and Rob Cooper of AES provide a presentation on a proposed solar project outside Waikoloa Village Tuesday night. (Max Dible/West Hawaii Today)

KAILUA-KONA — Representatives of AES Distributed Energy convened the first public meeting Tuesday night on a proposed solar-plus-storage project planned for an area roughly two miles southeast of Waikoloa Village.

Around 20 attendees took their seats a little after 5:30 p.m. at the Waikoloa Village Association Community Room, inquiring about aspects of the potential new solar venture including storm water runoff, wildfire precautions and a decommissioning process that’s decades down the road.

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“It’s not the answer to everything,” Kohala Councilman Tim Richards said of the solar project. “But we need power.”

Richards elaborated on all the potential Hawaii holds for renewable energy — solar, wind, geothermal, hydroelectric — and mentioned ongoing research happening across the island and the state on new technologies.

“But we actually have to do it,” he said. “Not just talk about it.”

However, Tuesday was the time for talk.

Project background

The Waikoloa project is one of two for which AES Distributed Energy, a subsidiary of The AES Corporation, submitted the winning bid. The other is located in central Maui. The solar ventures are part of a statewide initiative across Hawaii Island, Maui and Oahu billed by the Hawaiian Electric Companies as the largest addition of renewable energy in state history.

Such energy initiatives are particularly needed on Hawaii Island following the loss of the Puna Geothermal Venture. Before the recent Kilauea eruption engulfed the site, the Big Island led the state in renewable energy production at 57 percent. After the lava settled, renewable energy accounted for between 25-30 percent of the island’s utility sales.

The state has set a goal to rely entirely on renewable energy sources by the year 2045.

Beyond its new ventures, AES is also engaged in two solar-plus-storage projects on Kauai, one of which is slated for completion by year’s end.

There remains much work to be done before ground can break south of Waikoloa Village, but if all goes well, AES expects construction of the Hawaii Island project to begin in 2020 and for the site to be operational between 2021-22.

AES is planning for 115 solar panels on a single-axis tracking system that will rotate as the sun moves across the sky for the most efficient energy capture, along with a battery energy storage system comprised of 48 batteries that mimic the look of shipping containers. The equipment may span up to 250 acres.

Rob Cooper, head of business development for AES, said the site was chosen for several reasons, the access to sunlight primary among them. It is also devoid of high-grade soil, isn’t located directly adjacent to any homes or planned developments and an existing Hawaii Electric Light Co. (HELCO) transmission line runs directly through it.

Once completed, the venture will offset the energy consumption of at least 9,000 homes. It will produce 30 megawatts (MW) of solar power and will be equipped with 120-megawatt hours (MWh) of storage capacity. The storage system will be capable of storing 30 MW for a four-hour period.

Sam Ley, project engineer, called the combined solar and battery storage venture “the Holy Grail of renewable projects,” as it will allow HELCO to collect the energy and send it wherever needed throughout the grid, or hold onto the energy and disperse it as needed during peak usage periods.

Considerations

Storm water runoff is always a concern for island construction projects surrounded by sensitive ocean ecosystems, but Ley said those worries can be laid quickly to rest.

“In terms of storm water runoff, there won’t be any,” he said. “We’re going to be required by the state to not discharge any storm water.”

As to noise and dust, Ley said a dust fence will be employed as will water trucks to minimize dust on construction roads.

“We do everything we can to minimize the disturbing the ground in the first place,” he added. “Any dirt we don’t have to move saves us money but it also means less noise, less dust, less disruptions.”

Construction hours will be set based on local needs during the permitting process, but Ley said they typically begin between 7-8 a.m. and extend until around 5 p.m.

Traffic will be impacted to a degree on Waikoloa Road, as AES projects between 50 and 80 construction workers or more, most of them local hires, will be commuting in and out of the site. Trucking traffic will see an uptick as well, as on some days workers will move five to 10 containers of materials from ports to the site.

Ley said the heavier traffic period will last 6 to 9 months before subsiding rapidly.

As to cultural and environmental impacts, Cooper said preliminary reviews have already begun and it appears no culturally relevant sites or endangered species will be threatened. Surveys will continue once AES finalizes a 25-year power purchase agreement to run the solar project and sell the resulting energy to HELCO.

Other concerns brought up at Tuesday’s meeting included the potential of fire hazards in the dry Waikoloa region and the problem of unexploded ordnance (UXO) still scattered across the area as a result of military weapons testing during World War II.

Ley said contractors will consult standard fire codes and build 20- to 60-foot gravel fire breaks around any flame sensitive equipment, adding there will be at least a 20-foot vegetation barrier around the entire site.

Battery containers are also equipped with clean agent fire protection systems that combat the threat by regulating temperatures. Panel wiring is elevated inside the structures to keep it as far from the ground as possible and minimize risk.

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As to UXO, both Ley and Cooper said they expect to encounter some. They will follow the same process the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) has employed for years to clear UXO. AES will consult with USACE personnel on site to advise and supervise clearance and will hire local contractors based on USACE recommendations.

Anyone who wishes to submit comment or has questions about the project can do so until Dec. 15 by emailing AES representatives at waikoloasolar@aes.com.