Public positive about solar project proposed for Keaau

A lot between Keaau High School and Hawaiian Paradise Park could become the home of a 350-acre solar array by 2022.

During an open house Monday at Keaau High, representatives of Colorado-based solar company juwi Inc. discussed with about a dozen community members the specifics of their proposed project, which would install up to 150,000 solar panels on a lot just east of Keaau-Pahoa Road.

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The proposed project is intended to generate more than 80 million kilowatt-hours of electricity annually, which would cover the annual power requirements of more than 12,000 average Big Island residences, according to project documents.

The site would be located on land owned by W.H. Shipman and range from 320-350 acres, depending on the specific construction of the solar panels.

Will Kane, vice president of public affairs for Strategies 360, a Honolulu public relations firm employed by juwi, said Hawaiian Electric Light Co. issued a request for proposals in August for projects that would generate up to 436,000 megawatt-hours of renewable energy resources, with bids due in November.

The Keaau project is separate from another, larger array proposed by juwi to be built in Waikoloa. That array would cover up to 600 acres and generate enough electricity to power more than 14,000 average island households for a year.

If juwi’s Keaau project is approved, it is anticipated to complete construction by the end of 2022.

Juwi — which is pronounced “U V” — discussed the project with some community representatives, who expressed their concerns about and hopes for the project, during a meeting earlier this month, Kane said.

Some of the concerns include impacts to traffic, the environment or the local economy, Kane said, adding that 200 local jobs will be created during construction.

“We hired someone here to do a cultural survey; he did one on the ground, did one from the air, and he found no significant cultural sites,” Kane said. “We felt it was very important for the community that we make sure.”

Juwi has taken steps to address other concerns, such as including a dense vegetation barrier between the array and the roadway and working with the county to ensure construction trucks do not travel during peak traffic hours.

After completing construction, management of the array will largely be conducted remotely, Kane said, although an as-yet undisclosed local business will be employed to address potential emergencies.

One of those emergencies could involve the lithium-ion batteries required by HELCO that could store up to 120 megawatts of electricity. Kane said combustion of the batteries is exceedingly unlikely, but would require the application of a specialized fire suppressant, which will be included at the site.

The batteries to be used in the project have an estimated lifespan of 20-25 years.

“I don’t see any objections (to the project),” said state Sen. Russell Ruderman of Puna, who attended the open house. “It makes sense to have solar on this side of the island.”

Ruderman said his only concerns involve the potential for the project to cut off a possible Puna makai alternate route, or if ohia trees were threatened by construction. Juwi representatives assured Ruderman that neither concern would be a factor, he said.

“Who can complain about more solar?” Ruderman asked. “It’s great that they’re proposing something in Puna that doesn’t generate controversy.”

One attendee, Deborah Ward, said she has concerns about the potential for construction to disturb local cave systems that might exist under the land, as well as some sites of architectural value. Other than that, she said, the proposal is a “worthwhile project.”

“I think we should work on covering more of our parking lots and county buildings with solar panels, too,” Ward said.

Nanawale Estates resident Jon Olson said the project is attractive compared to other sources of energy.

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“I’m a big supporter of solar; there’s no moving parts,” Olson said. “The sun comes up, the lights come on.”

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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