Airport Solar Project for OGG Under Consideration Again

A planned 64-acre solar energy project to power Kahului Airport (OGG) has been revived after it had been put on hold three years ago due in part to concerns that it would prevent the future addition of another runway....
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But would it prevent a planned third runway?

A planned 64-acre solar energy project to power Kahului Airport (OGG) has been revived after it had been put on hold three years ago due in part to concerns that it would prevent the future addition of another runway.

The idea had been for the State Dept. of Transportation (DOT)  to contract with a developer who would lease state-owned airport land and build the solar array in return for a long-term (20 years or more) power-purchasing agreement with the airport to buy the electricity at a set rate, thus, allowing the developer at least two decades to recoup their investment and turn a profit. At the end of the contract, the state would have the option of purchasing the system at fair market value.

This 2004 site plan for Kahului Airport (OGG) shows a third, unbuilt runway at the bottom (highlighted in yellow), which state DOT officials say adding a large photovoltaic project on airport land would preclude.

According to Maui Electric, the airport’s energy demand is projected to be approximately 8 megawatts, and with today’s photovoltaic technology, it takes about 8 acres of solar panels to generate each megawatt, so Maui Electric estimates that the project would require a minimum 64-acre lease, an area roughly 85% the size of the UH Maui Campus in Kahului.

But there’s a hitch. Blueprints for the airport going back several decades have shown a third, as-y et-unconstructed runway running parallel to the main runway, but slightly shorter in length. And that third airstrip is supposed to go right where the solar farm would be built, east of the heliport alongside Hana Highway and Stable Road.

A 2018 RFP for the project was rescinded in part due to concerns that locating the solar panels on airport land would preclude any additional runway construction. So, proponents of renewable energy found themselves facing off with those who want to keep the option of future runway expansion open.

Guy Ichinotsubo, engineering program manager for the DOT’s Airports Div., recently confirmed that the potential for airport expansion was one rationale for the 2018 RFP revocation.

“One of the reasons that we haven’t reached back to Maui Electric [until now] is because the potential site for the PV farm would preclude the parallel runway–the third runway–from being built,” Ichinotsubo explained. Calling it “a sensitive issue with the Maui community” he said, “there are discussions within the Airport Division as to whether or not that third runway would ever be needed, given the opposition that occurred when the subject was first brought up.”

Official word from the department’s public information officer, Jai Cunningham, is contradictory. He states that the cancellation of the previous RFP had to do with the proposals being too disparate. “There was so much variance between the proposals that it was not feasible to fairly compare” them, partly because one involved biogas. (The RFP specified “renewable energy” rather than solar.)

The question remains whether Maui residents  want or need added airport capacity, at all. Ask local residents (or spend a few minutes on social media) and you’ll find many who think the number of visitors to the island is already too high for the capacity of our infrastructure. Locals complain about traffic and popular natural sites becoming overrun with tourists.

There is also a growing call among some state officials to increase the quality of our guests, rather than the quantity, meaning that the state should work to attract more wealthy visitors who spend more money. “We don’t want to do high-volume, low-spending tourism here,” State Rep. Sean Quinlan [D, Oahu] is fond of saying.

To that end, it might be preferable to lengthen the existing runway at OGG to accommodate larger jets, which would allow for more direct flights from Japan, Korea and other parts of Asia, whose upper crust often favor Hawaii as a vacation destination. Currently only Oahu and the Big Island have runways lengthy enough to accommodate the bigger jets coming in from Asian hubs. Lengthening the main runway would still be an option if the solar project were located on airport land east of the heliport, but another runway would not. On this, Cunningham agrees. “There is sufficient acreage for either the solar farm or the third runway,” he said. “HDOT will make a determination on the use of the land based on the proposals received.”

In reality, the solar project wouldn’t prevent another runway from being built, it would just delay it for the 20-year life of the project, after which the land would become available again, unless the airport chose to purchase the solar array and keep it in operation.

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Solar Sewer Plant Sought

Seeing the opportunity for a state-county partnership, Maui Tomorrow president Michael Williams is lobbying for an expansion of the airport solar project to power the County’s wastewater treatment facility at Kanaha Beach, nearby. “To me, it’s just such an obvious win-win for everybody,” said Williams. “Both the state and the county will save lots of money on their electricity costs, plus we’d cut the amount of diesel oil that the county is burning, all at the same time. What’s the down side?” Williams asked.

However Ichinotsubo is not sure that’s possible. “Right now we cannot use airport funds for non-aeronautical uses,” he explained, “so if we were to do this PV farm, we cannot have the county tap into our power source.” With Maui Electric taking over management of the proposal from the DOT, it’s more likely that the wastewater plant could be included. Williams requested an investigation into the plan at the March 17 Cost of Government Commission meeting, which will allow the commission to access records to determine how much energy the treatment plant requires and what additional infrastructure would be required to connect it to the solar installation.

A new proposal by the administration to partner with a large residential developer by taking on the cost of building a new wastewater treatment facility near Waikapu in exchange for the inclusion of more low-cost housing units might throw a wrench into that plan, though. (See story, page 18.)

If Mayor Michael Victorino has his way, the county would build a new Central Maui sewer plant for the long-planned Waikapu Country Town development in exchange for additional workforce housing units being added to the planned community. Building the plant so that it can service Kahului, as well, is only a matter of adding capacity, and replacing the aging beachfront plant at Kanaha which sits in a tsunami zone.

Dan Collins

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