Sustainability in Hawaiian Paradise: Is It Possible?

May 28, 2013
Lanai rainbow

Will sustainable technology be an efficiency rainbow or a blight on the Hawaiian island of Lana’i? Photos by Tommy Kissell

It’s a beautiful Hawaiian Sunday morning and I just arrived at Lahaina Harbor, Maui, to catch a ferry across the Au’au Channel to the Island of Lana’i. I am on my way to explore the island, its potential for sustainability, and to see what the people who live on the island and visit think about the major green tech developments.

Lanai mapLast year, 98 percent of the island of Lana’i was purchased from David Murdock by Larry Ellison, co-founder and chief executive of Oracle. Ellison intends to convert the island into an eco-laboratory utilizing sustainable technologies and make it an example of sustainable enterprise.  The plans include a microgrid powered by renewable energy, expansion to the 1.5-megawatt La Ola Solar Farm, already the largest in Hawaii, and a desalination plant to supplement the island’s water supply.  He also intends to use drip irrigation to support a series of organic farms across the island and some day export produce. Ellison is also developing the infrastructure. He recently purchased Island Air and also plans to add a third hotel, more roads, another runway, and improvements to the harbor. Also still up for consideration is the much-debated wind farm. Developments for a sustainable Lana’i are already progressing quickly. Recently Ellison appointed Byron Washom, the director of the Strategic Energy Initiatives at the University of California, San Diego to oversee the development. Washorn, who dubbed himself the “chief architect,” plans to expand the solar grid and reshape the power demand load. He also intends to evolve the island’s energy storage capacity by focusing on pumped hydro, compressed air and batteries.

Manele Harbor

Lana’i’s Manele Harbor

Once on the ferry, I choose a seat on the top deck.  I sit among a group of locals and tourists and there is a lot of chatter about the activity on Lana’i. There is a Little League baseball team headed over for a tournament, a group of bow hunters, golfers, campers, snorkelers and explorers. There is a mix of excitement and hesitation in the air.

“I heard he’s building a park.”

“I heard he’s building another hotel.”

“He is making the island into a giant farm.”

The baseball coach is giving pitching advice to his starter for the day.  He looks up with a big smile and says, “As long as he keeps it Hawaiian.”

Anti Wind PosterMuch of the discussion revolves around wind power and how much the population will increase. Before the sale, Murdock intended to build a wind farm, rights which he retained during the sale of the island. Many residents on the island do not want the turbines, as most of the power would be sent to the island of Oahu. The residents do not feel the wind farm would justify what they consider to be an intrusion on the land. Lana’i has barley 3,000 residents and there are only two-resort style hotels on the entire island. Even with the pineapple industry, which has come and gone, the island remains mostly undeveloped. There are no traffic lights, there’s a lack of roads, and the best places can hardly be reached. It has remained throughout the years by chance authentically Hawaiian, and the people throughout the state have a deep appreciation and respect for Lana’i as it is.

Lanai fields

The fields of Lana’i could see some farming changes.

Manele Harbor is small but exciting. The only people here are getting off the ferry. I’m soon alone in a four-wheel-drive Jeep and headed to the Garden of the Gods, the once-proposed site of the wind farm. The drive is peaceful and leads past the La Ola Solar Farm, where I stop and watch sheep, those natural landscapers, eat the grass growing around the solar panels. From there pine trees line each the road for miles where fields were once covered with the world’s best pineapple. These are the fields that will be the future organic farms supported by drip irrigation and sustainable farming methods.

As I drive through Lana’i City signs are posted on fences and houses that either support or oppose the wind farms and the development of Lana’i. Before I realize it I am out of the city and at the foot of hill at the The Lodge at Koele, one of two Four Seasons hotels on the island. From here the road is dirt and the tracks of other four-wheel-drive vehicles are the only evidence that anyone has been here.  Once I pass the horse stables I decide to have a little fun, put it in four-wheel drive head down the dirt road irresponsibly fast.

Garden of the Gods

Lanai’s Garden of the Gods.

After about 30 minutes and the most fun driving experience of my life, I reach the Garden of the Gods. The landscape feels more like Arizona than Hawaii. There are massive boulders as far as the eye can see. I imagine building-size wind turbines dotting the landscape and a paved road replacing the treacherous one. I continue down a treacherous and rocky unpaved road to Polihua Beach.  I am the only person here, and there is over a mile stretch of untouched sand where there are no footprints and a wicked undertow. From there I head to Shipwreck Beach, where sea turtles are sunbathing and eating moss off the rocks, while a local family fishes with multiple poles in the water.  Throughout the day I pass a few hunters, but otherwise I run into hardly anyone.

I return back the way I came and have some time to kill before the ferry, so I stop off at the Four Seasons Resort Lanai at Manele Bay. The whales have left for the season, but the dolphins are in the cove, and the beach is peppered with sunbathers and snorkelers. I settle in and think about the contrast between Lana’i and the more developed islands of Maui and Oahu. How does one make one of the most remote islands on planet sustainable and maintain its authenticity? Not just a sustainable environment but also a sustainable economy and community. What are the methodologies? These are all questions that will have to be answered in the coming years. Developing the island will require additional infrastructure and a population increase that will change the face of the place.

Ellison has expressed his love for Hawaii and is involving the residents of Lana’i, including their feedback and constructive criticism. One of his primary intentions is to rely on the community in the development, and he plans to include a council composed of island locals in the decision-making process. There is also a global oversight, as the world is watching and interested. In a digitally connected world there are few isolated spots left.

lanai turtle

Swimming with the sea turtles and a GoPro underwater camera.

It is evident that the people of Lana’i want to preserve the island but also become an example of sustainability. The combination of a community and sustainable technology could be just the micro-example of sustainability the world needs to bring sustainability and green tech initiatives elsewhere. In the meantime get out here if you can and try Lana’i. It is worth the journey.

Tommy Kissell is the owner/president of sustainable electronics integrator Eco High Fidelity of Carrollton, Texas, and a regular contributor to GreenTech Advocates. See some of his company’s cool installs in the links below.

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3 Responses to Sustainability in Hawaiian Paradise: Is It Possible?

  1. […] posted at GreenTech Advocates on May 28, 2013 by Tommy […]

  2. George Lewis on June 5, 2013 at 9:41 pm

    Spent last two weeks on Galápagos Islands researching stories for my blog (and other outlets.) One of the stories is about sustainable power projects there. Would love to compare notes with you about comparisons to Lanai. Galápagos now uses diesel to generate most of its electricity and I think the place could use someone like Ellison. Was impressed that Byron Washom gave you kudos on Facebook.

    Best regards,

    George Lewis

  3. […] where electricity costs $.47 per kilowatt hour and plans are afoot for a major wind farm.  He wrote about that trip in the Green Tech Advocates blog, noting that there is some local opposition to the big […]

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