Hawaii seems to have a problem with Big Projects

June 15th, 2011

ThinkTech Hawaii

Big Wind has been in the news lately. Most recently, the Mayor of Maui called for more “transparency” from the PUC on the project. That sounds admirable, but transparency doesn’t always mean transparency; sometimes it just means opposition no matter what. As we all know, environmental arguments are often advanced as a cover for NIMBYism, the wolf in sheep's clothing.

Yes, we'd like to maintain our standard of living, but we can’t have it both ways. If we want the luxury of NIMBYism, we may have to give up our standard of living. If we want progress and QOL, we may have to ease up on the NIMBYism.

Does the public understand the dichotomy? Big Projects have been whipping boys in an arena where interested parties play sport to a court of public opinion. So in large part the public is educated by dint of unrestrained advocacy, where the best man doesn’t always win. Few developers can run that kind of gauntlet.

When the public is uninformed, decisions affecting Big Projects become more political and erratic and less scientific and consistent. Over the years, we lose confidence in government and its ability to get the job done and we come to expect less from it. If we interfere inappropriately, government locks up and so does the project. This can be avoided if the public is properly informed, the law is respected, and the players are dedicated to or at least mindful of the greater good.

By definition, NIMBYs aren’t working for the greater good or the welfare of the larger community, but only self-interest – “I want mine and I don’t care if you get yours.” Seeking an ongoing public "discussion and debate" on Big Projects, they know you can’t reach consensus shouting, and that while a good shout may be therapeutic it also delays any project until the project fails. The longer it takes to come to rest, the less likely the project will succeed.

Big Wind, including the undersea cable, is mission critical. We’re not going to be able to replace fossil fuel with rooftop solar and PV. Even with solar and PV going gangbusters, by themselves, they won't be able to replace fossil fuel in Hawaii any time soon. We can’t power the state and keep the lights on relying on them alone.

We need big sources of proven renewables to replace fossil fuel. For now, wind is one of those sources – we already have hundreds of megawatts in place, and the Big Wind project will provide another 400MW for a statewide grid. It’ll take us a long way and when we get storage in place it might be the best solution for a while, especially if local investors would finally spring to finance the wind development companies.

If we could come to agreement on biodiesel, geothermal or OTEC, then these could complement Big Wind. The point is that Big Wind can power the grid soon. In any event, we should let our officials do the job they were elected, appointed and hired to do. The ultimate decisions on clean energy choices must be left to DBEDT and the PUC. If we hassle them, things will lock up. A perpetual argument about everything doesn't help anyone and it certainly doesn't let us meet our goals.

Oil will go up to stupendous levels in the next five years. If our big source development gets stuck in endless “transparency,” we’ll fail our goals and we’ll have to pay the full freight of those oil increases, first in our cost of living, and then in the demise of jet plane tourism as we know it. Is anyone listening?

No one wants a windmill is his backyard, but clean energy for the state should trump that. And everyone likes whales, berries and environmental impact statements in general, but an affordable statewide transportation system should trump trumped-up environmentalism. The SuperFerry experience was a complete train wreck. It was destructive long-term, and we still don’t know how much we hurt ourselves. Remarkably, even a bill for a “study” of a new ferry quietly failed in the 2011 legislature.

Babel doesn’t seem appropriate while Rome is burning. Sure, Democracy is tumultuous, but we also need an economy. While our anti-progress industry has been in a growth period, Big Projects are stuck. We need a countervailing Progress Alliance, but we don’t have one and we’re suffering in the imbalance. With clear collective thinking, we need to be able to discern the difference between a bad project, a good project and a mission critical project.

All that considered, it’s certainly worth the effort to examine why Big Projects get stuck. And that’s what we’re doing on Thursday, June 23rd. The Hawaii Venture Capital Association and ThinkTech are teaming up with Pacific New Media to present a panel program called “Big Projects in Hawaii – why are they stuck?”

We’ll cover five Big Projects, although there are certainly others, to find out what makes a bad project, a good project and a mission critical project, and what factors affect the likelihood that those projects will be stuck or get off the ground. We want to examine the dynamic and see if we can’t find solutions too. Of course, we should resist the notion that Big Projects are simply impossible in Hawaii, and just give them up.

These are the five projects we will discuss: Big Wind, Rail, the Ferry, the Biotech Campus at Kakaako and the Airport Upgrade. Arguably, many if not most of these projects are mission critical and should have our undivided attention. Our speakers are blue ribbon – energy attorney Gerry Sumida on Big Wind, former Governor Ben Cayetano on Rail, Representative Joe Souki on the Ferry, HCDA’s Tony Ching on the Biotech Campus, and DOT’s Jadine Urasaki on the Airport Upgrade.

You can sign up at hvca.org or thinktechhawaii.com. See you there.

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One Response to “Hawaii seems to have a problem with Big Projects”

  1. zzzzzz:

    Big Projects have Big Scopes and affect a lot of people, a lot. It's natural that they will generate opposition and scrutiny; OTOH, some Big Projects also generate passionate support.

    Are you aware of any place where Big Projects don't generate NIMBYism?