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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Penguin Bank project called off

By Rob Perez
Advertiser Staff Writer

A Seattle company is abandoning plans to pursue a controversial renewable-energy project in a Hawai'i humpback whale sanctuary because a new regulatory process effectively blocks such developments, the company's president said yesterday.

"Game over," said Burton Hamner, head of Grays Harbor Ocean Energy Co.

Hamner's company was proposing to erect as many as 100 ocean platforms over a roughly 80-square-mile area between O'ahu and Moloka'i to harness up to 1,100 megawatts of electricity from waves and wind.

The proposed site, called Penguin Bank, is in the heart of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, considered one of the most important habitats in the world for the endangered species. The proposal was widely criticized by environmental groups, Moloka'i residents and others, mainly because of the location. The sanctuary is considered a prime feeding and calving area for the whales. It is an important foraging spot for Hawaiian monk seals and is popular with commercial and recreational fishermen.

Grays Harbor last October had applied to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for a preliminary permit to study the feasibility of erecting the large platforms at Penguin Bank.

At the time, the commission and the U.S. Department of Interior were disputing which agency had jurisdiction over wave-energy projects in ocean waters beyond three miles from the coast, as was the case for the Penguin Bank project.

Under an agreement recently reached between the two agencies, companies proposing such projects must first get a lease from the Interiors' Minerals Management Service, Hamner said he was told.

But Hamner said his understanding of MMS regulations is that the agency is prohibited from issuing leases in marine sanctuaries, effectively killing the Hawai'i project. The company is pursuing six similar projects off the east and west coasts on the Mainland. None are in marine sanctuaries.

A representative for MMS could not be reached for comment.

Hamner said the Penguin Bank site was the only one in Hawai'i that would work for such a massive project. Yet because of the whale sanctuary, he knew the environmental concerns would be substantial. Each raised platform would have had three concrete-encased legs extending to the ocean floor and would have supported a windmill with a steel tower roughly 300 feet high.

The company maintained that the project would have caused no significant environmental impacts, a contention opponents questioned.

"We always knew this would be a very, very challenging site," Hamner said.

Beyond the environmental issues, the Grays Harbor proposal raised questions about its technical and financial feasibility.

Irene Bowie, executive director of Maui Tomorrow, a citizens planning and environmental group that opposed the project, said she was pleased Penguin Bank will remain free from development.

"We certainly support alternative-energy projects like this if they're well-thought out and put in the appropriate location," Bowie said. Penguin Bank, she added, wasn't an appropriate location.

Henry Curtis, executive director of Life of the Land, said he hopes the demise of this project doesn't scare off other renewable-energy developers.

"We hope that any future proposal will involve the community early on in the process and be mindful of Hawai'i's fragile environment," Curtis said.

Reach Rob Perez at rperez@honoluluadvertiser.com.