PUC should rule first on Wa'ahila power line
Here's one thing we know for sure: If a public vote had been called on the proposed powerline on Wa'ahila Ridge on Super Bowl Sunday, 1987, we know which way it would have gone:
Overwhelmingly for the line.
That was the infamous day when an outage in the Palolo service area left thousands of rabid football fans in the dark for between 15 and 40 minutes.
The memory lingers, and it features prominently in the debate over whether a 138kV power line (the biggest Hawaiian Electric builds) should be strung along the ridge at the edge of Manoa Valley.
The purpose of the line, which would link a substation deep in Palolo Valley to another near 'Iolani School, is to substantially upgrade the reliability of electrical service on O'ahu. Hawaiian Electric speaks of it as the final link in a "ring of reliability" that would serve Honolulu.
Without this last link, it warns, there remains the possibility of power outages that could darken great swatches of Waikiki and Downtown.
The project has more than its share of critics, including much of Manoa Valley, the mayor, the governor and others. They question everything from the aesthetics of the pro-ject to its very need.
Timing is wrong
A critical step in the process of deciding whether this pro-ject (known as Kamoku-Pukele for the two substations involved) goes forward will take place Thursday at 6 p.m. in the Capitol Auditorium.
At that time, the state Board of Land and Natural Resources will hear testimony on Hawaiian Electric's request for a permit to string the line and poles on Wa'ahila Ridge, which as conservation land is under the board's jurisdiction.
Our position is that the timing of this matter is wrong: Before deciding whether this project should be built on conservation lands, someone must decide whether it is needed at all. And that is a question primarily for the Public Utilities Commission.
Before the Land Board says yes or no, it should have a clear message from the PUC that the project is needed as a matter of sound energy policy. If the answer is yes, then it is proper for the Land Board to decide whether it should go through conservation lands and, if so, what mitigating steps might be required.
Hawaiian Electric argues forcefully that the issue of need is settled. Its mission is to provide reliable power to all of O'ahu. We cannot "import" power from neighboring jurisdictions. We must depend on our own resources.
Hawaiian Electric has taken this responsibility seriously, and its engineers have concluded that the link between Kamoku (near 'Iolani) to Pukele (at the back of Palolo) makes the most sense. Based on a variety of political, cost and engineering factors, they feel an underground route to the back of Manoa, then up along the ridge following an existing right-of-way, is best.
Look at big picture
And it may, if we describe problem and solution as HECO has described them. But the PUC must look at this in a much broader context: For instance, this line is the final link in a system that depends on centrally generated, oil-based power (mostly produced in the Leeward area) that is distributed islandwide through a system of big overhead transmission lines and a combination of underground and above-ground distribution lines.
Building this link is a multimillion-dollar commitment to this system.
At some time, isolated Hawai'i will have to find a way to end its precarious dependence on imported oil for its energy needs. While the technology is not here yet may never be to shut down the plants and pull down the lines, alternate energy is clearly becoming a more important part of our energy future.
Thus, the "need" for this improvement to the existing system is gradually (and properly) diminishing in terms of technology.
Need is also a matter of demand, a factor that HECO says will continue to grow. Perhaps so, but will the growth in demand be purely for the form of power provided today over those overhead lines? Not necessarily. Homes and businesses will gradually convert portions of their energy supply to alternative sources as their reliability and cost improve.
Finally, there is the issue of "need" from the technical standpoint. This project may be "needed" if it is accepted that reliability depends on a line linking Pukele and Kamoku. But the PUC might conclude that there are other solutions, including an idea floated by Hawaiian Electric itself in 1979, which was to bring that other major 138kV line into Kamoku through a southern route rather than down from the mountains.
These and other questions are useful for the Land Board to consider, but far beyond its jursidiction to decide. It should postpone action on this permit until the PUC has a chance to look at the larger issues and to think deeply about long-term issues surrounding O'ahu's energy future.