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Geothermal is a Red-Hot Topic

Many people in Hawaii think geothermal electricity is a great renewable-energy idea, unless you happen to live in Puna, the epicenter of both geothermal and the opposition to it.

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A lava fountain at Kilauea.

Photo: Thinkstock

Some things are almost impossible to oppose: Mom, apple pie and renewable energy. After all, renewable energy promises independence from world oil prices, fewer greenhouse gases and, possibly, lower prices. For many people in Hawaii, geothermal perfectly fulfills that promise – energy that is relatively cheap, plentiful and always on. For others, especially people living close to the existing geothermal energy site in the Puna District of Hawaii Island, geothermal energy is not a promise but a threat – a dangerous experiment that could injure and kill.

This year is the centennial of the world’s first geothermal-generated electricity, which occurred in Italy. Today, geothermal electricity is produced in eight U.S. states and 23 foreign countries, according to the Geothermal Energy Association. Nearly 40 more countries have projects at some stage of development. Advocates say decades of global experience undeniably prove the value of geothermal power. However, opponents say Hawaii’s unique situation defies easy comparisons with other locations.

The local debate has heated up this year for two reasons. One was a blowout of toxic gas in March, the first significant incident in Puna in 22 years and one that renewed opponents’ resistance to geothermal. The other reason is that Hawaii Island’s power utility, the Hawaii Electric Light Co., is ready to more than double its use of geothermal power. HELCO asked for and received six confidential proposals to provide up to 50 additional megawatts of geothermal power to its islandwide transmission grid. HELCO’s current peak demand is less than 200 mw, so new and existing geothermal generation could combine to supply almost half of the Island’s peak energy needs.

Puna Geothermal Ventures’ power plant.

Photo: Thinkstock

“Moving forward on geothermal is important to Hawaii Island because we want to increase our use of renewable energy and bring down costs for our customers, while also ensuring reliable service,” says HELCO president Jay Ignacio. “At the same time we’re pursuing bidders who are committed to thoroughly addressing environ-mental, community and cultural concerns.”

The Puna district already supplies HELCO with 38 mw of power, thanks to the generating plant run by Puna Geothermal Ventures. PGV has been tapping superhot brine deep beneath the surface since 1993, using its steam to run turbines and feeding the resulting power to the grid. The long-term plans are ambitious. Many people statewide think that, in time, it would be a great idea to lay an underwater cable so other islands could share electricity generated by Hawaii Island’s vast geothermal resources.

The Native Hawaiian community is divided on the issue. Some Hawaiians believe that it would be sacrilege to drill into and extract energy from Mauna Loa, home of the volcano goddess Pele and one of the world’s most active volcanoes.

“What do you think drilling is? There is no ‘small’ rape – rape is rape! There is no such thing as ‘clean’ geothermal,” exclaimed Palikapu Dedman, founder of the Pele Defense Fund, at a rally in July in Pahoa, less than four miles from the site of PGV’s plant.

Other Hawaiians, such as Pat Kahawaiolaa, say the free energy from the earth is a gift from the goddess and we should be grateful for her bounty. “This island could run on geothermal easily. To me, geothermal is a no-brainer,” says the retired postal worker, who was appointed by the state to the Geothermal Working Group.

His view is echoed by the Innovations Development Group, a company that says it is mostly owned by Native Hawaiians and wants to harness geothermal energy in a sustainable way while preserving cultural traditions. IDG helped the Maori people in New Zealand to develop geothermal energy under the premise that all natural resources belonged to them before European colonists arrived, and they should receive some of the benefits from new developments.

IDG calls it a native-to-native business model and now seeks to apply the same principle in Hawaii. The company recently received a $600,000 investment from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and leased a 400-acre parcel in Puna.

Although HELCO’s request for proposals forbids IDG from confirming it, it’s a safe bet that IDG is one of HELCO’s geothermal bidders.

Global History

The first geothermal power plant in New Zealand opened in 1958 and geothermal now supplies about 10 percent of the nation’s electricity, according to the New Zealand Geothermal Association.

Geothermal has an even longer history in Iceland, where legend has it that people first used geothermal heat 1,000 years ago to warm their homes and bathed in the hot water. But it wasn’t until the first oil-price shock of the 1970s that Iceland used geothermal heat to generate electricity. Today, the National Energy Authority says, 30 percent of Iceland’s electricity is produced by geothermal sources and most of the rest comes from hydroelectric dams.

Iceland has abundant geothermal energy because it lies on a crack in the Earth’s crust where the North American and Eurasian plates are pulling apart. That makes it very different from the volcanic geothermal energy that lies beneath Hawaii Island, which is generated by a volcanic hotspot, not shifting continental plates. New Zealand, with both active and dormant volcanoes, is a better comparison with Hawaii’s situation.

Proponents of geothermal development in Hawaii also often point to California, where power has been safely generated with underground steam sources since 1960. Comparison is tricky. Hawaii has one well; it is hot and toxic. California has scores of wells and they vary from hot to “cold” (below 212 degrees Fahrenheit). Compare Puna with the town of Calistoga in Napa County where mineral-rich water is tapped, cooled and bottled as a health tonic.

Facilities found in populated areas are primarily low temperature and therefore less toxic.

California wells produce both steam and hot water (the hotter the water the more contaminants are leached from the bedrock) and gases. Naturally occurring pollutants in both states and other geothermal sites worldwide include heavy metals, ammonia, sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide. Hydrogen sulfide, or H2S, is the main fear of Puna residents: It is invisible, smells like rotten eggs and works like carbon monoxide or cyanide gas on the human respiratory system. That means prolonged exposure or high levels can kill you.

From 1982 to 1999, there were 38 documented leaks, repairs and Civil Defense emergencies from either the original, experimental, government-sponsored, three-megawatt plant, named Hawaii Geothermal Project – A, and Puna Geothermal Venture’s subsequent 38 mw generating facility. HGP-A closed in 1989.

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