An island-wide blackout triggered an unprecedented emergency backup power project at Hawaii’s biggest airport. That was 10 years and tens of millions of dollars ago, and when we started digging, we found out it’s still not working right.
The backup power plant got underway after two power outages in two years, but now that plant can’t quite kick into gear automatically.
It’s just the latest airport project to be plagued by delays, missteps, and costly change orders. We wanted to know why this keeps happening to airport projects. Can, and will, anything change?
When Oahu went dark after the October 2006 earthquake, a lesson was learned: The airport was going to need a whole lot more backup if it ever happened again. And happen it did — an island-wide outage just two years later during the 2008 Christmas travel hustle when the airport delayed flights, kept incoming passengers on planes, barely humming with fractional power from an old backup generator system.
A multimillion-dollar, 10-megawatt standalone generation project — about eight times the old generator system — went out to bid.
“The main function of this energy power facility is to make sure we have power in a blackout,” Department of Transportation Director Ford Fuchigami told Always Investigating. “I don’t want 50-percent power. I don’t want 70-percent power.”
It broke ground in 2011 and was to open by the fall of 2012 at a cost of $20 million, but Always Investigating uncovered it has yet to work just right and remains stuck in a testing loop. One test brought most of the airport to a screeching halt when regular power wouldn’t go back on.
“We’re a 24/7 operation. In 2012, when I was deputy director, we did backup testing of the generators. When we tried to switch back to the normal electricity, it wouldn’t go back on,” Fuchigami recalled. “Seventy-five flights were delayed, so things will happen, and that’s the reason why finding a testing period and making sure that we don’t disrupt the operations to the airport is very important.”
The power plant is supposed to be revolutionary: four large generators in a concrete tower powered by on-site renewable biodiesel, exporting power right into the nearby HECO substation, switching on and off automatically without the airport missing a beat. But the state kept changing its mind about what exactly it needed built, the contractor got paid for wait-around time, tech and specs changed as the years went on.
We asked, who is to blame?
“I think in this particular case, the changes had to do in what we asked for,” Fuchigami said. “We found going through the testing there were some difficulties. We have to make sure this thing is functional, is what it is. We don’t want to put this thing online just for the sake of putting it online because of the fact we made a deadline. This has to work.”
We asked Fuchigami, what’s the glitch that it can’t just turn on automatically?
“It’s our project, but HECO’s (Hawaiian Electric) going to run it for us,” Fuchigami said, “and because of that we have to make sure all the specifications HECO requires are being met, all the testing HECO requires are being met, and I think that’s the biggest thing.”
Hawaiian Electric told Always Investigating: “The Emergency Power Facility is connected to the grid and does generate electricity. Hawaiian Electric is working closely with the state to finish work to enable the facility to be run automatically, either to supply the grid or to provide power to the airport in an emergency.”
Sources say generators bought early on languished maintenance-wise. The DOT told us, “The contractor conducted maintenance work during the construction phase. The contractor paid for the coolant and oil sample analysis and the results came back normal. Additional sampling will be conducted.”
Change after change order has the latest price up past $23 million and years of delay. That aggravates Sen. Donna Kim, who just held hearings about another troubled project: the cargo hangar Hawaiian Airlines had to take over to finish building.
When Always Investigating told Kim of our power plant findings, she dug into the project details too and drew this parallel: “We started the maintenance facility, same thing, and it’s on the same watch. It’s their decisions, poor decisions being made. They’re gambling not with their money, but with the public’s money.”
Always Investigating asked Fuchigami: What’s going on when the public sees a project, delayed, over budget, sometimes busted as is the case in some of the more problematic projects?
“I think a lot of times we start, but because of this process behind me (referring to extensive procurement and approval rules),” Fuchigami said, “by the time we’re ready to get into construction and we’re ready to get into testing, the needs have changed.”
DOT’s director, many lawmakers, and airport stakeholders called for creating an airport corporation, an independent authority to take it all over. They held a press conference during the legislative session declaring the current system unworkable.
“Doing the same thing and expecting a different result is not real smart. This is the time to change it,“ said consultant Gina Marie Lindsey, CEO of GML Advisors. “Unless Hawaii is willing to fall further behind in meeting traveler expectation, it needs to implement an airport corporation.”
“The status quo is holding us back. An airport corporation will help move the airports system and its projects forward faster and more efficiently,” said Blaine Miyasato, co-chair of the Airlines Committee of Hawaii.
The authority would have seats at the table for private businesses like airlines and concessionaires. That irked the head of the state’s largest public worker union.
“I don’t think we should be, as a community, turning over operations of a government asset like an airport to a complete lay board with no oversight whatsoever,” said HGEA president Randy Perreira, “because at the end, they certainly are going to do what they believe to be in their best interest.”
“We built this airport without an authority,” Kim said. “Every time you can’t do something, you’ve got to put an authority? We put an authority for HART (rail) and look where we’re at.”
The airport authority bill failed to make it out of the legislative session.
See something that needs fixing? Send us your airport or public-facility photos of lingering broken stuff. We’re looking in to what it will take to get things fixed faster at our most-used public facilities.
Always Investigating asked Fuchigami: How can you guarantee the public it can be done better than it’s being done now, regardless of that bill?
“I think we’re taking a look at different ways of doing it,” Fuchigami said. “You have redundancy. You have duplication of effort, and that’s what prolongs a project. We have to come up with a better way of going ahead and getting these projects to move forward.”
“Ford Fuchigami and the DOT Airports team have done a remarkable job of moving Airport Modernization forward, working within a system that often seems to tie their hands behind their backs,” Gov. David Ige told Always Investigating. “Many airport projects that have been dormant since 2007 are moving forward. I am committed to working with Ford and his team to find ways within the existing law to streamline the process so that we can make the investments needed to support the visitor industry.”
Fuchigami says they’re already trying better coordination with their chief procurement officer, the Department of Budget and Finance, and the state’s Department of Accounting and General Services to expedite paperwork and processes and cut red tape.
“If we can resolve that problem, it would be better, but their priorities are not always the airport’s priorities,” Fuchigami said, “and when you have that, you have these difficulties.”
Difficulties like the troubled power plant.
We asked, in the worst case, if a blackout happened today, could you run out and cold start it and have it working for some backup power now?
“Yes, it manually can be turned on,” Fuchigami said, “plus we still have another seven generators out there, so we do have the old system. It’s still online.”
How long until it works perfectly, automatically?
Fuchigami told us as of late April: “I think it’s slated for next month. We’ll invite you to the grand opening.”
We’ll keep tabs on this and other big projects in the pipeline at the airport, but we’re also digging into the little things — the fix-its that seem to stay broken for a long time.
We’re covering that next, not just at the airport but at other public facilities we’re all paying for, whether through user fees or taxes.
Send us your photos of broken stuff that really irks you as we look into what it’ll take to get things fixed faster.
According to the Department of Transportation, the following recent accomplishments throughout HDOT Airports Division are highlights of projects that went right (more information can be found here):
- Reopening the Federal Inspection Services facility that allowed international flights from Japan to land in Kona,
- Established the Energy Savings Performance Contract statewide that reduces energy usage and cuts cost in half, resulting in a guaranteed savings of more than $600 million over the next 15 years,
- Improvements to Daniel K. Inouye International Airport (HNL) Central Concourse through a public-private partnership,
- Improvements to HNL Ewa Concourse, which increased retail space and renovated restrooms,
- Opened the new Kahului Airport Access Road, reducing congestion and adding efficiency around the airport,
- The completion of Taxiway Z Reconstruction Project (HNL) that was nominated for an award with the American Public Works Association,
- Installed new Automated Passport Control kiosks at HNL and KOA to reduce the time arriving international passengers spend in line.