It began as a simple engineering problem. Maui Electric Company (MECO) studies revealed that South Maui needs additional electrical power capacity to meet current needs and the needs of future planned growth.
Their solution: build an additional substation, increase capacity at the existing Ma'alaea power plant and install transmission lines on 70-foot high poles along Pi'ilani Highway from Ma'alaea to the new substation across from Kamali'i Elementary School in Kihei.
Simple--until the Kihei community got wind of it. Then, the Kihei Community Association (KCA) strongly protested the MECO plan and South Maui elected officials weighed in with their concerns and opposition.
The proposed Ma‘alaea-Kamali‘i Transmission Line Project includes four potential routes. The orange shaded area indicates a mauka corridor route, blue is the overhead pole route along Pi‘ilani Highway, red is a combination of underground and overhead along the highway and green is overhead along the existing power route into and through Kihei.
Ultimately, MECO felt the need to revisit their plan and to approach the community for more comments.
That decision set the stage for a meeting held on Tuesday, Dec. 13, at the Kamali'i Elementary School cafeteria billed as a "Community Meeting on Maui Electric Company Ma'alaea-Kamali'i Transmission Line Project." Although it was the fourth meeting MECO held on the subject, the community was now fully engaged and wanted more answers.
"We are looking at other options," MECO President Ed Reinhart told the crowd of almost 90, who set aside a Christmas shopping night to attend the meeting.
"Our purpose here tonight is because we want to hear your thoughts and your options," Reinhart said. "Your comments will be part of the public record as we go forward with the project."
After MECO Systems Designer Ryan Powell detailed MECO's position that a second transmission line is necessary to ensure reliable electrical service and provide for a more efficient and reliable power grid, given plans for future development in South Maui, which include a new police station and the Kihei High School, the public was given an opportunity to voice their opinions.
Several challenged MECO's cost estimates for the placement of the transmission lines underground or mauka of the Pi'ilani Highway, as opposed to using overhead transmission lines along the well-traveled road.
MECO estimated the cost of overhead lines at $37 million and the cost of a combined overhead and underground option at $108 million. A mauka route was estimated to cost $81 million, and using the existing corridor that roughly travels the path of the north-south collector road at $49 million.
Kihei resident Mark Hyde spoke against the numbers analysis. "In terms of financial analysis, there are other numbers that are very important. What is the financial impact of various alternatives? To the degree that property values are hurt, that loss of value hurts all of Maui," he told MECO officials.
"This is the fourth meeting I have attended on this project," said Norman Bondy, when called upon to speak. "I am not an engineer. How many times do we have to say we don't want the towers?"
Realtor Bob Hansen echoed Hyde's comments: "This is a tourist economy and people don't come here to see overhead power lines. We know that power lines above ground will decrease our property values. We just don't know by how much."
Chris Daly, the principal at Kamali'i asked, "Where is the substation relative to the school? We want to consider the health of our keiki and our community as well."
Community activist Michael Duberstein told MECO that, "By taking this stand, MECO is setting policy before the General Plan is adopted and the South Maui Plan is adopted. Let the people decide the policies and the people have said they want underground lines."
Following Duberstein, Pat Stillwell insisted, "We are opposed to overhead power lines. What more do we have to do to make ourselves heard?"
When asked by a show of hands if they wanted overhead or underground lines, every hand in the crowd went up for the underground option.
As the meeting concluded, Reinhart took the podium.
"What you are hearing tonight is the utility trying to change its mind about power generation," Reinhart said. "Traditionally, utilities have always chosen the lowest cost option. By listening to you, we hope to think outside the box and make that presentation to the Public Utilities Commission."
The Public Utilities Commission in the State of Hawai'i has the final say on costs allowed for power generation and the utility rates to pay for it.
Joan Martin thanked Reinhart for coming. "I don't know anywhere on the Mainland where the president of a utility company would come to the community and answer questions like you have tonight," she said. "I think it says something about Maui and about how we try to work together to solve our problems."
The audience seemed to agree, giving Reinhart and his team a closing round of applause.
For more information, go to the KCA Website at www.gokihei.org.