Will solar panels taint historic WWII Navy airfield?

LOS ANGELES — There is perhaps no greater American monument to the War in the Pacific than Ford Island in Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor.

The naval base there with its old hangars, runway and control tower — some still showing damage from the Japanese attack that brought the United States into World War II — is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Dotted around the island’s 450 acres are memorials to the battleships Arizona, Utah and Oklahoma, which were sunk. Docked near the Arizona’s submerged hull is the Missouri, the legendary battlewagon and scene of Japan’s formal surrender on Sept. 2, 1945.

Now, aviation enthusiasts, history buffs and military veterans fear that Ford Island is under a new threat. The Navy plans to use a swath of the famous airfield for a solar power plant with 60,000 photovoltaic panels. Opponents say the project would dishonor those who died there on Dec. 7, 1941, and alter the character of the island by giving the historic setting more of an industrial feel.

“It’s absurd, absolutely absurd,” said Mal Middlesworth, 90, a member of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, who as an 18-year-old Marine watched the attack from the decks of the San Francisco, a heavy cruiser. “Ford Island is one of the most sacred areas of the Pacific Theater. It’s a national shrine. I don’t understand the Navy.”

Defense Department officials say the proposal would help the Navy meet a requirement that its shore installations obtain half their power from alternative sources by 2020.

The Navy, which anticipates lowering electricity costs at its Pearl Harbor facilities by about $1.5 million in the first year alone, has vowed to protect the island’s history as required by federal environmental and historical preservation laws.

“We look at this as an opportunity to preserve what is on Ford Island while taking advantage of new technologies to secure our energy future,” said Capt. Mike Williamson, who is in charge of the Naval Facilities Engineering Command in Hawaii.

Today, the island is used for Navy housing, a brig, training facilities and offices of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The solar proposal calls for a private company to install and operate at its own expense photovoltaic panels on 27.5 acres of the old runway. Officials say electricity would be sold to the Navy at or below market rates.

While Ford Island looks attractive for the project because of its size and location, Navy officials say they are also weighing several areas around Pearl Harbor that do not contain historic landmarks.

The project has been supported by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the secretary of the Navy, and Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, who has sought funding for the military’s alternative energy projects.

However, there is mounting opposition organized by the Pacific Aviation Museum on Ford Island, which would like the project built elsewhere.

Ken DeHoff, the executive director, has started a national petition drive and is trying to enlist the help of high-profile military veterans, historians, private pilots and members of various aviation organizations. Among the opponents is retired Gen. Merrill McPeak, a former Air Force chief of staff.

“Ford Island and its runway are part of the historic memory of the United States,” said McPeak, an aerospace consultant based in Oregon. “Why we should decide to deface what should be a national monument is a mystery. Surely, there is much other real estate at which sunlight can be gathered in the state of Hawaii.”

Williamson said the Navy wanted the least disruptive design and had recommended low-lying black panels configured to recapture the look of the old runway, which, because of an overgrowth of grass and weeds, is not very noticeable for the public.

The Historic Hawai’i Foundation originally supported the idea, but Executive Director Kiersten Faulkner said the organization now had doubts because of changes that could detract from the historic setting. Instead of a flat layout, the Navy is considering a tilted array of solar panels, additional equipment on the airfield and a 7-foot-high perimeter fence.

“It looked like a compatible use before,” Faulkner said.

“Now it is more impactful. Maybe the Navy should look somewhere else.”

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