Rob Parsons

Floating Ideas

Wave power from 'Down Under' and Inouye's power of pork

by Rob Parsons

Talking wave power in Haiku

February 28, 2008

If there's one thing synonymous with Hawai`i, it's waves. Big, curling, powerful waves travel thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean to stack up on Hawai`i's shores in a timeless ebb and flow. Surfers harness raw wave power for the pure, unfiltered rush that dates back more than 200 years to when Captain Cook witnessed the "sport of kings." So named because it was reserved for the Ali`i, or ruling class, Kamehameha I was just one of Hawai`i's rulers renowned for his wave-riding prowess.

Other sorts of waves have also washed across the ocean to Hawai`i-waves of immigration, tourism, development, as well as exploitation and militarism. And just last week, a wave of optimism and political change swept over the islands.

Record numbers of voters showed up to be part of the Hawai`i Democratic Party and to select a candidate in the Tuesday, Feb. 19 statewide caucus. Across Maui and the state, long lines-and insufficient numbers of printed ballots-overwhelmed polling places. Riding a huge wave of momentum from recent primary victories, Illinois Senator Barack Obama was the clear choice, garnering 76 percent of the vote.

Political pundits may ponder the reasons for Obama's local success: his island roots as a Punahou graduate, inspiring oratory style, or multi-ethnic background being well accepted in Hawai`i-itself a melting pot of ethnicities and cultures. Likely his "Obama-mentum" is attributable to all these, as well as his platform of "Change you can believe in." His campaign website features the banner quotation, "I'm asking you to believe. Not just in my ability to bring change in Washington? I'm asking you to believe in yours."

Two nights later, the Haiku Community Association welcomed residents to their community center for a presentation on wave power technology for generating electricity. With news that Australian company Oceanlinx has forged a Memorandum of Agreement with Maui Electric Company (MECO) to produce up to 2.7 megawatts from floating platforms off the Pauwela lighthouse area, a small audience showed up to ask questions and hear more. Less than 30 people attended-far less that the 800-plus who showed up for the caucus two nights earlier.

Haiku residents have a colorful history of showing up to defend their turf. Public outcry in the past limited the height of the infamous Sprint Tower and challenged streetlights, power poles and private homes along the Hana Highway view corridor, as well as kept a proposed Minit Stop from impacting mom-and-pop grocery and service station businesses.

Aussie representatives weren't in town, so questions went to two MECO executives. President Ed Reinhardt offered a Powerpoint presentation, which described the patented technology that uses the compressed air from waves passing beneath a floating platform, similar to a blowhole's force, to spin a turbine. Tethered from a half mile to a mile offshore, an undersea cable would bring electricity onshore, using directional drilling to pass under sensitive areas such as the reef and shoreline.

Concerns ranged from preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS-one is anticipated), to the proposed number of units (two to three), visual impacts (minimal, due to chosen location and distance from shore), lighting (to follow Coast Guard requirements) and transmission line visibility (no new or taller poles; larger cables would be installed on existing poles).

Questions included why MECO isn't accepting more of the wind power from Kaheawa Wind and why the utility isn't looking to produce clean, renewable energy itself, rather than just purchase it from a power producer. "We're hear to talk about the wave energy project," Reinhardt reminded the audience.

The Oceanlinx wave energy project could supply one to two percent of the electric needs of Maui, perhaps enough to power 2,500 homes. An earlier meeting with the Trailer Boat Club brought support, since the floating platforms would work as Fish Aggregating Devices, and because Oceanlinx vowed to help improve the dilapidated boat launch facility at Maliko Gulch.

Also last Thursday evening, another power source appeared on Maui. Senator Daniel Inouye, Hawai`i's politically powerful senior elected official, spoke at the Maui Tropical Plantation, addressing those who were willing to pay the $100/head fee.

Though a Hillary Clinton supporter, Inouye was enthusiastic about the turnout for the Democratic caucus. While previous caucuses have never topped 5,000 voters, more than 37,000 showed up this year. The county picked up a thousand new voters, while many more registered as first-time members of the Democratic Party.

Inouye, in public service and elected office since Hawai`i achieved statehood, nostalgically spoke of the John Burns-led Democratic revolution back in the 1950's, recalling when he waited in line one and a half hours to vote.

A member of the U.S. Senate delegation since 1963, Inouye has risen to powerful positions, chairing the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, as well as the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense. The latter position means he oversees some $400 billion annually in defense spending.

Inouye also has acquired a reputation for being extremely effective at procuring funding for his home state. His success at utilizing "earmarks," or district-specific additions to the federal budget, is perceived as a blessing and a curse by others.

Citizens Against Public Waste, "America's #1 taxpayer watchdog," regularly compiles a list of pork-barrel projects in the federal budget, and the elected officials who procure them. Inouye has, for many years, landed Hawai`i in second place on that list, right behind Alaska. It's no surprise that Inouye's closest colleague is Senator Ted Stevens (R, Alaska). Both men, 83 years old, are long-tenured veterans of bringing home the bacon.

Inouye's influence has brought a wide variety of projects and funding to the islands, including the "Star Wars" installations atop Haleakala and in the Maui Research & Technology Park, legislation to allow Norwegian Cruise Lines exclusive provisions to operate under U.S.-flagged status, funding for the Kihei-Upcountry Highway and H-3 funding on Oahu-the most expensive per-mile Interstate Highway project ever.

Thursday night in Waikapu, Inouye dropped a bit of a bombshell, announcing that he would seek a massive earmark for funding an alternative route for realigning the Honoapi`ilani Highway between Lahaina and Central Maui. Seeking inclusion in the 2009 federal budget, he hopes to accomplish what has been discussed for the past 30 years, with minimal progress, while continuing development has continued to result in traffic snarls.

He also defended his role in budget earmarks, which all three leading presidential candidates may wish to reform. "Whether they want to criticize me or not," Inouye told the crowd, "I'm the biggest bag man in Washington."

The Inouye-Stevens alliance has been a big part of the push to open Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to petroleum and natural gas drilling. Stevens, a conservative Republican, has found minimal support among Senate Democrats, though Inouye and fellow Hawai`i Senator Daniel Akaka have been among those voting for the measure.

Recently, Inouye and Stevens have drafted legislation to open federal waters, between three and 12 miles from U.S. shores, for open-ocean fish pen aquaculture operations. While it's clear that marine aquaculture is here to stay, it's uncertain if this idea floated by the octogenarian senators passes any sort of environmental muster.

In a recent article of Science & Technology, Rosamond Naylor of the Stanford University Center for Environmental Science and Policy shared a myriad of concerns. "Expanding aquaculture into federal waters should not be permitted without enforceable national guidelines for the protection of marine ecosystems and fisheries," she said.

Among a long list of concerns are biological, nutrient and chemical pollution, use of GMO fish or GMO fish food, susceptibility to disease among captive stock, need for substantive liability criteria, the need for royalty payments to compensate society for the privatization of public waters and the lack of guarantee that there would be local economic benefit (foreign investors have shown great interest in fish farming operations worldwide).

Moreover, Kona Blue, Hawai`i's current top aquaculture producer, exports the majority of its product-"Kona Kampachi" or amberjack-to sushi markets in Japan and the West Coast. Recently it moved its headquarters to San Francisco, "to be closer to its customer base and have better access to potential investors," according to a Pacific Business News article last month.

Food and Water Watch, a Washington D.C.-based advocacy group, reports that 71 percent of U.S. aquaculture production is exported. Essentially, we're sending our fish abroad, where it fetches a higher price, then serving our own people imported fish, which is often of a lesser quality.

Paddling into big surf without proper knowledge and experience can be a life-endangering experience. Experienced surfers know to sit onshore and watch waves carefully before paddling out into the lineup.

Simlarly, we are well advised to proceed with caution as we seek to solve the complex issues of food and energy production. Anything worth doing is worth doing well, and often haste makes waste.

As Maui seeks to establish an innovative wave technology, careful review of the impacts through an EIS will be essential. Fortunately, Oceanlinx is very proactive at engaging the public in participation.

Likewise, our legislators should not approve open-ocean fish pens without adequate safeguards protecting our environment and local fisheries. In Hawai`i, that's what we call being pono: doing what's right.