You may have received the letter in the mail dated April 15. It invited South Maui residents to attend a public meeting at Kihei Community Center on April 30 at 6:30 p.m. regarding Maui Electric Company's (MECO) proposed South Maui reliability projects.
This was the second community meeting held by MECO to address this issue. The first was on Dec. 13, 2011, and while the audience at that meeting expressed appreciation for the attendance of MECO officials, including then-President Ed Reinhart, it was decidedly not impressed with plans to locate an electrical substation across from Kamali'i Elementary School and run a transmission line along the mauka side of Pi'ilani Highway.
MECO President Sharon Suzuki, who was appointed to the top job following Reinhart's retirement in 2012, opened the April 30 meeting.
More than 30 people turned out to hear MECO’s plans for its South Maui Reliability Projects. Several asked about the availability of federal funds to help pay for the cost of underground instead of overhead power transmission lines.
She told the 33 people attending the meeting that she was there to "update you and to get your input," echoing the April 15 letter, which said, "While initial plans for the Ma'alaea to Kamali'i 69kV transmission line included possible consideration of an overhead transmission line along the Pi'ilani Highway right-of-way, those attending the Dec. 13, 2011, public meeting voiced a preference for an underground transmission line, as well as support for a mauka route option."
Ryan Powell, a systems designer in MECO's Transmission and Distribution Department, then told the audience that the "all overhead (transmission) route mauka of the entire town of Kihei had been eliminated due to costs and the need to obtain permission to pass over several landowners' property, and also because of the danger this option posed to archeological sites and endangered species."
Many at the December 2011 meeting had favored this route.
Powell also told the audience that the Kamali'i substation--originally to be built across from the elementary school--would be moved south of the school and farther mauka of the highway, where it might not be seen from the road.
The placement of the Kamali'i substation had been one of the main objections to the original MECO proposal and was overwhelmingly voiced at the December meeting.
Powell said that among the options now being considered in the South Maui Reliability Projects proposal include an overhead-underground Pi'ilani Highway route, an all overhead Pi'ilani Highway route, and a third hybrid overhead-underground route to help reduce visual impacts.
Powell said MECO has not decided on a final route for any of the options, and is seeking a balance between design, cost and community concerns.
Despite community disapproval, the all-overhead Pi'ilani highway route is still being considered. In a telephone interview after the meeting, Powell said this route is under consideration because it is the lowest-cost option and the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC) will ask about it.
In his background presentation, Powell said South Maui lacks redundancy, and if power were disrupted, MECO would have to divert the flow of electricity from the Ma'alaea substation. He said that as South Maui continues to grow, this option is not going to be viable.
"The goal is to bring to South Maui the reliability that exists in other parts of Maui," Powell said.
Mike Moran, president of the Kihei Community Association, but speaking as an individual citizen, said, "South Maui has been exploding for decades. How did it come about that we didn't have this redundancy?"
Powell responded, "We have been working on these projects for years and years. We are looking at the Maui Island Plan and we want to be ahead of the game instead of waiting until it happens."
In response to a question, Powell said that these projects were not meant to create more power in the system but designed to add redundancy to prevent power outages in South Maui. Any new transmission lines would terminate at the Kamali'i station, and the power would then go on to existing lines to Wailea.
He also said that a new substation proposed above the light-industrial development where Tesoro and other business are located would remain, even if proposed projects (Pi'ilani North and Pi'ilani South) at Ka'ono'ula are not built.
Andrew Beer asked why the MECO maps showed an option that had been eliminated. Powell explained that it was only there for illustration purposes and not as a possible option.
Kathleen Kern summed up the feelings of many when she asked, "Could I respectfully request you have a community meeting before you make your final route decision? The community would really like to see exactly what's going to be overhead and underground, in addition to the hybrid solution."
The story of MECO is in many ways the story of Maui. The company has evolved as the electrical power needs of Maui have grown over the years. Even today, as it moves into areas such as net metering, smart electrical grids, solar, wind, natural gas, biomass and (potentially) geothermal, the origins of the company can still be seen. In 2011, 6 to 7 percent of MECO's power was supplied from the Hawai'i Cane & Sugar (HC&S) plant in Pu'unene from the burning of bagasse, the fibrous residue left after sugar is extracted from the cane.
According to the Hawaiian Electric Company (HECO)--which is the parent company of MECO--at times in the past, as much as half the electricity on the smaller Hawaiian Islands was supplied in this way.
But that was then, and it is far removed from a time when people in rural areas cheered as electricity reached their homes, providing power for lighting, vacuums, washing machines and irons.
Today, MECO is a regulated industry, and while it enjoys a power monopoly in return for public oversight by the PUC, it still has to hold community meetings and attend numerous hearings in a process that can take several years before any new electrical substations are built and new transmission lines installed.
Look for an announcement of another community meeting late this year or early in 2014--but don't expect MECO to turn dirt on the South Maui Reliability Projects for several more years to come.