Wind turbine projects are exponentially increasing across the United States in an effort to transition from global fossil fuel dependence to renewable energy products. Wind turbines work by utilizing to “turn the propeller-like blades of [the] turbine around a rotor, which spins a generator, which creates electricity” . In Hawaii, specifically on the island of Oahu, there have been 49 wind turbines constructed since 2011 . Most recently, the Na Pua Makani Project was constructed in 2020 in the area of Kahuku, producing 24 megawatts annually . The Na Pua Makani Project was constructed by Na Pua Makani Power Partners, LLC owned by AES Corporation, an electric power distribution company headquartered in Arlington County, VA . The wind project located in Kahuku is located near two other operational wind turbine projects; the Klondike 1 Project, and the Kahuku Project.
The Na Pua Makani Wind Project differs from the surrounding projects in that the turbines are 568 feet high, standing much taller than the Klondike 1 and Khakuku Wind Projects . The project aims to contribute to Hawaii’s renewable energy goal of “100 percent renewable energy generation by 2045” . In pursuit of this goal, however, the Na Pua Makani Project contributes and creates environmental injustice in Kahuku. At the same time, it is also important to understand the benefits that the Na Pua Makani Project provides to Kahuku and to the state of Hawaii.
Unlike most other environmental justice cases, the Na Pua Makani Wind Project brings benefits to the area it is located. The project first reduces Hawaii’s dependence on fossil fuels. As stated by the US Energy Information Administration, “More than four-fifths of Hawaii's energy consumption is petroleum, making it the most petroleum-dependent state in the nation” . By increasing wind energy generation, the project combats Hawaii’s dependence on fossil fuels. The project also powers up to 16,000 homes and reduces CO2 gas emissions by 70,000 tons annually . Lastly, AES Corporation will be making a 2.5 million dollar contribution to Oahu’s North Shore community for a variety of areas, including COVID-19 relief, education, culture, and even sports and the arts . AES also will make an annual contribution to local nonprofits, schools, and homeowners associations . Although the benefits of wind energy are felt across the state of Hawaii, the burdens of the project only impact the residents of Kahuku.
The most prominent burden’s felt by the Kahuku community by the Na Pua Makani wind project are noise pollution, a decrease in property values, shadow flicker, and habitat/wildlife impacts. The Na Pua Makani Project creates low-frequency sound waves each time the turbine blades rotate, which can impact the sleep hours of residents. During the night, the legal noise limit is 45 dBA, for no more than 2 mins during a 20-minute period . However, AES Corporation notes that the sounds of the Na Pua Makani turbines average to be 44 dBA . The Na Pua Makani Project’s high dBA average, or decibel average, may exceed the legal limit for night-time noise, impacting the ability of residents to sleep at night.
Additionally, many people see the presence of wind turbines on the landscape as an eyesore. Due to this, property values are impacted by the Na Pua Makani Wind Project for Kahuku residents. The project will lead to an “estimated 10 to 25 percent reduction of Kahuku property values” . Shadow flicker is also a problem and occurs when the sun is low in the sky and the turbine casts a shadow onto a building. As the turbine rotates the shadow goes in and out of the building, creating a flicker effect. Shadow flicker is an annoyance for residents and is of “a particular concern for people who suffer from photosensitive epilepsy and experience seizures in response to certain environmental triggers” . Lastly, the project poses a particular threat to the endangered Hawaiian Hoary bat. Residents fear that the turbines may contribute to the Hawaiian bat’s population decline, causing the species to go extinct. The bat is the only extant land mammal in Hawaii and is listed on the endangered species list . It is these issues that disproportionately affect the people of Kahuku.
The Na Pua Makani Project is an environmental justice issue because the community of Kahuku is lower-income and is disproportionally burdened with the impacts of wind turbines. In opposition to the project, leader Kanani Ponciano states, “What other community on Oahu is surrounded by this many monster turbines? Other areas may have the money to fight these large companies. Kahuku doesn’t. This is environmental injustice” .
The small town of Kahuku is home to 2,300 residents and is surrounded by 20 wind turbines. Residents “unfairly bear the burden of having 40% of all the existing turbines on O’ahu in its backyard” . Further, the burdened Kahuku residents do not even get to use most of the clean energy that they are producing. On the island of Oahu, the vast majority of residents live in urban areas, particularly 81% in Honolulu . Therefore, the clean energy produced on the northern shore of Kahuku is put onto the grid system and used by the dense population living in southern Oahu in Honolulu. These urban Honolulu residents do not have to be burdened with the impacts of wind turbines but get to use the clean energy that they produce. With these statistics in mind, it is clear to see that Kahuku residents are facing environmental injustice.
Due to the environmental injustice present in Kahuku, before the construction of the Na Pua Makani Project, residents attempted to protest and stall the development process. On October 17th and 18th, 2019, 55 protestors were arrested for attempting to block construction vehicles transporting wind turbine parts to Kahuku. On the 18th, a utility pole was intentionally cut down to stall the construction vehicles transporting wind turbine parts. The downed power lines shut down power for close to 1,000 residents . Following these protests, on November 14th, 2019, 26 protestors were arrested for blocking transportation vehicles, and another 20 protestors were arrested on the 18th for the same action . These protests were able to stall the construction process of the Na Pua Makani Project and bring more awareness to the issue but were unable to stop the construction process.
Another protested aspect of the project is its Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP). The HCP allows for the project to take up to 51 ‘ōpe‘ape‘a (Hawaiian hoary bat) over the span of 21 years . A nonprofit activist group called Keep the North Shore Country challenged the plan in 2016 and 2018 when the State Board of Land and Natural Resources approved the HCP . The challenge was heard in the Hawaii Supreme Court on April 1, 2021 and in February 2022 the State Supreme Court voted to uphold this decision and approve the HCP, stating the plan would ultimately benefit the bat and that the wind farm would eliminate a large amount of produced carbon . Currently, the wind project is operational, disproportionately impacting the residents of Kahuku.
Key stakeholders in this environmental justice issue are the Na Pua Makani Protestors including Kahuku residents and the opposition group Keep the North Shore Country. Other key stakeholders include AES, Na Pua Makani Power Partners LLC, and the Hawaii State Government. Kahuku residents and Keep the North Country want to increase reliance on safer renewable energy, such as solar panels. Unlike the large turbines, a rooftop solar project would not harm the environment nor have noise pollution that many are concerned is harming their children . AES and Na Pua Makani Power Partners want the continued operation of the Na Pua Makani Wind Project. These groups do not see the project as environmental injustice, as Mark Miller, AES Chief Operating Officer states “Kahuku benefits from one of the best wind resources. When you look at the island and the opportunities (for wind development) this location has the best available wind resources for that” . AES claims to have only sited the turbines in Kahuku because of the available wind resources, and not because Kahuku is a lower-income town that has less of an ability to oppose wind turbine construction. The Hawaii State government is in support of the Na Pua Makani Project and wants continued renewable energy development as the state needs to meet its ambitious renewable energy goal of 100 percent renewable energy generation by 2045.
In conclusion, the Na Pua Makani Wind Project creates both benefits and burdens, however, the burdens drastically outweigh the benefits of the project for Kahuku residents. There is a disproportionate distribution of wind turbines on Oahu, and their siting is targeting a specific community due to their demographics. The project has been heavily criticized as contributing to the environmental injustice that is already present in Kahuku, however, the turbines became operational in the summer of 2020. There must be further analysis done to assess the impacts of the wind turbines on the town of Kahuku and increase awareness of the potential issues that renewable energy can create. Our energy future depends on the transition to clean energy, therefore we must have systems in place to protect minority communities from being faced with the disproportionate siting and burdens of wind turbines. The Na Pua Makani Wind Project is an example of environmental injustice that can occur from renewable energy, specifically from the development of wind turbines.