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Geothermal's Second Chance

Lessons from a turbulent past could help expand this renewable energy’s future

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     Puna Geothermal Ventures site.
     Photo: Courtesy of Puna Geothermal Ventures

When geothermal steam was first harnessed to generate electricity on the Big Island almost three decades ago, the project left many residents with a bitter taste. The technology was substandard, the community wasn’t consulted and environmental protestors became fixtures outside the plant.

Some residents still see the Island’s volcanoes as a sacred power that should never be commercialized. But today, the high price and environmental damage of oil has helped persuade many others – including some former opponents – to re-evaluate geothermal’s potential to generate more renewable energy and stimulate a struggling Hawaii Island economy.

“I think most people here see geothermal as a positive thing,” Big Island Mayor Billy Kenoi says. “But it has to be done right this time. We’re not going to ‘Superferry’ any more major community projects. The lesson here is: Talking builds trust. You cannot rush. ... The more time and effort you put in on the front end, the easier it is, the more collaborative and cooperative it is on the back end.”

Right now, geothermal supplies 20 percent of the Island’s electricity, but Kenoi hopes it will soon help Hawaii Island become the state’s first county to get half of its energy from renewable sources.

     Mililani Trask, attorney and Native Hawaiian advocate, says she
     supports responsible geothermal development. “It’s crucial that
     the community has a say in what goes on to prevent the same
     mistakes from happening.”
     Photo: Rae Huo

Tumultuous past

The first geothermal well in Hawaii was drilled by the state in 1976 and began producing electricity in 1982. Originally designed as a two-year project to prove geothermal energy production was possible, the plant operated for seven years.

“People criticized it for being unsafe and irresponsible,” says Mike Kaleikini, plant manager for Puna Geothermal Ventures, Hawaii’s only remaining geothermal power site. “From the very beginning, geothermal faced tremendous struggles – and rightfully so.”

Soon after the pilot program, a project on Campbell Estate land 
almost turned Puna into a battleground. More than 1,000 protestors assembled near the entrance of True-Geothermal’s drilling facility on March 26, 1990, claiming the development hurt nearby Wao Kele o Puna, the state’s largest remaining lowland wet forest and a sacred place for Native Hawaiians. More than 130 people were arrested that day. Eventually, after years of opposition and litigation, the Wao Kele o Puna geothermal project was abandoned.



“(Wao Kele o Puna) was put together for private benefit with no consideration for the impact it would have on the community or the environment,” says attorney and Native Hawaiian advocate Mililani Trask, who was at the protest two decades ago. “The previous model had no ideas for benefit sharing and the technology was poor. The goal was for the company to get rich and nobody else. It was a mismatch of science, technology, the resource and management.”

Today, Trask says there have been significant advances in technology and Hawaii has more national and global experience from which to draw.

“We can’t go backwards in time,” she says. “This time around, I am in favor of responsible use and development of the resource.”

Around the same time, in 1993, Puna Geothermal Ventures began its commercial operation with a power-purchase agreement with the Hawaii Electric Light Co. to provide 30 megawatts. PGV, which is owned by Ormat Technologies, based in Reno, Nev., sits on the lower East Rift Zone of Kilauea volcano, adjacent to Wao Kele o Puna.

“We had protestors in the beginning when we first opened,” Kaleikini recalls, “but, thankfully, nothing like what happened with other projects.”

He says PGV performs regular community outreach so Puna residents understand what’s happening in their backyard and have a chance to discuss it.


Guy Toyama, chair of the Hawaii County Mayor’s Energy Advisory Commission, describes geothermal’s initial appearances in Hawaii as a “disaster.”

“There was no input from the public and it was an open system, so the hydrogen sulfide was let go into the atmosphere,” he recalls. “When PGV came along, considering the history of geothermal, they came across many challenges.”

Toyama says PGV’s closed-loop, zero-emission system is much safer and cleaner than previous technologies.

“I’m sure that’s one of the reasons the public is more accepting of PGV’s operation,” he says. “This time around, the feeling in the community is different.”

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