Plan to allow solar farms on top-rated agricultural lands dealt setback

Plan to allow solar farms on top-rated agricultural lands dealt setback
A Senate committee voted to defer a measure that would have permitted large solar farms on the state's best agricultural lands. (Source: Hawaii News Now)

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - State lawmakers on Wednesday halted a proposal that would allow large solar projects on the state’s most valuable agricultural lands.

House Bill 593 would also require some agricultural activities on the property and offer benefits to farmers.

Opponents include the Hawaii Department of Agriculture, the Hawaii Farm Bureau and several environmental groups.

“Putting a large solar facility right in the middle of prime ag land does nothing for farming,” said Henry Curtis, executive director of Life of the Land.

The bill would have helped Hoohana Solar, which initially planned to use some "A" rated agriculture lands for part of its new 52-megawatt PV farm in Kunia.

After running into opposition, however, the company decided to use lower-rated lands in order to move forward with the project without the measure.

“We were looking at creating some processing facilities, some refrigeration facilities, giving a long-term lease to a local farmer who had been there who was struggling,” said Jon Wallenstrom, a spokesman for Hoohana Solar.

The state says "A" rated agricultural lands make up 3% of the more than 1.8 million acres of agricultural zoned land across Hawaii. About 69% of these lands are in production, not including livestock grazing, according to the Hawaii Department of Agriculture.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee decided to defer the bill indefinitely.

Retired farmer Dean Okimoto was disappointed because he envisions young farmers partnering with solar installations and adopting new technologies so that both industries can grow.

“We can save all the land that we want, but if we don’t have the farmers then what is the point?” questioned Okimoto.

Brian Miyamoto, the executive director of the Hawaii Farm Bureau, said he wanted to continue discussions to see how the state could address the important issues of both food production as well as renewable energy.

“We do support the technology and understand that there’s a need for agricultural technology, however, we were just opposed to it being done on the 'A' rated lands,” he said.

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