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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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40 years of study

A geothermal power plant in Iceland, a world leader in geothermal.

Photo: Courtesy of Ormat

University of Hawaii geochemist Don Thomas was on the job when HGP-A was drilled in Puna in 1976 next door to where the PGV facility now stands. He spent more than a dozen years testing and monitoring the hot mix jetting up the pipe from more than a mile deep. After 40 years of researching Hawaii’s geothermal re-sources, if anyone knows what Pele’s gift is comprised of, it’s Don Thomas. He dismisses the current anti-drilling activism as “a longstanding disinformation campaign.” After all, he points out, HELCO’s Kanoelehua-Hill plant, which burns oil to generate electricity, “dumps 500 pounds of sulfur dioxide – a no less environmentally and physiologically damaging compound – into the atmosphere every hour.”

As for hydrogen sulfide, he reminded me that OSHA safety rules allow well workers to remain in an atmosphere of 10 parts per million for an eight-hour day, five days a week. Further, occasional spikes of 15 parts per million are authorized for up to 15 minutes, the major risk being eye irritation.

“When I was conducting analyses of geothermal steam samples, the air in my lab consistently had five to 10 parts per million of H2S for hours at a stretch,” he says. “High concentrations can be dangerous, and this compound, like any other, needs to be treated with respect at those concentrations. Recent research, however, has begun to show that lower levels of exposure to hydrogen sulfide may actually be therapeutic.”

Mike Kaleikini, Senior Director of Hawaiian Affairs for Ormat Technologies.

Photo: Joshua Fletcher

At the same time, Thomas recalls standing near the original well when steam discharged at 300-400 degrees Fahrenheit with an H2S content of 800 ppm.

The worst geothermal incident occurred in 1991, when a pressure pipe ruptured and vented 2,200 pounds of H2S into surrounding neighborhoods. At least 75 Puna residents were evacuated from their homes for several days.
Geoff Last vividly remembers that incident.

“I have lived in Puna for 29 years and witnessed and experienced geothermal energy,” says Last, now retired from his flower-growing business. “When I first arrived here, I believed in geothermal – free, clean, green and wonderful. The Department of Health allowed open venting and dumping of waste on the ground. My son used to ride home on the school bus through clouds of H2S and heavy metals and tell me about the smell and how he did not feel so good. I was busy building my home and my flower business and still believed in the Health Department and geothermal. Then the blowout in 1991: We were told to leave our homes. I got educated.”

Last is a board member of the Puna Pono Alliance, a citizens’ group that opposes more geothermal plants in the Puna District.

The 1991 leak was followed by 22 years with no major incidents from the PGV plant before another blowout on March 13 of this year. One of the two transmission lines to HELCO was down for repairs and the second one failed. Before the turbines could be turned off, raw, toxic steam was released into the PVG compound and the neighboring community.

A hazmat team and other emergency crews responded, but no one was injured and no evacuation was ordered; the highest reading of H2S detected outside the PGV site by the Hawaii County Fire Department was three parts per million. County Civil Defense doesn’t order an evacuation unless the leak is not contained and if sustained readings of at least 10 ppm are detected.

Mike Kaleikini, senior director of Hawaiian Affairs for Ormat Technologies, the parent company of PGV, greeted me in July at his office on the PGV compound. It is a low, wooden, prefab structure that can be moved in case of seismic event or volcanic emergency. HELCO required that bids on the new geothermal power generation be kept secret, so Kaleikini would neither confirm nor deny if PGV was a bidder. But, in the past, Ormat has advocated for geothermal expansion, so it seems likely that the company was among the six bidders for the new project.

As we talked about the March 13 blowout, he asked, “Why is everyone so excited about this event? We’ve had a number of leaks before.”

In the eyes of geothermal advocates, the blowout was a minor problem that was quickly contained and posed no threat to residents. The system worked. To opponents, the leak confirmed their suspicions that, despite 22 years of improvements, geothermal technology was still not entirely safe. The system doesn’t work.

Harry Kim

Another thing that has upset opponents is a move by the state Legislature to eliminate their ability to fight geothermal through the county regulatory process. They believe they have been robbed of their right to public input and to present their health and safety concerns, and Harry Kim agrees with them, even though he personally favors geothermal energy.

Kim became well known and well loved during his 16 years as civil defense administrator for Hawaii County from 1984 to 2000. He understands the concerns about geothermal power generation in Puna: At least 18 times during his watch, civil defense teams were called out to monitor an H2S leak or other emergency. He personally supervised the evacuation of downwind homes during the 1991 blowout. “It was my job,” he tells me. Some people, however, still criticize him for not shutting down the whole geothermal operation when they say he had the chance.

His reputation was so strong among Hawaii Island’s people that they voted him in as mayor in 2000 and then re-elected him in 2004. Fast forward to Nov. 29, 2012: The soft-spoken politician, now in his 70s, had just lost his bid to oust the incumbent mayor, Billy Kenoi. With his salt-and-pepper hair and wearing a colorful aloha shirt, he addressed an audience in Pahoa assembled by the Puna Pono Alliance to explain why he had run for office again.

“I was a happily retired grandfather,” he related, but added that his relaxation was interrupted by a disturbing phone call from a friend. “It was the first I’d heard about Act 97.”

That spring, the state Legislature had passed two new laws to expedite development of alternative energies, a law which effectively repealed Act 296-83, which itself created six drilling “subzones” designed to restrict exploratory operations within defined areas. Kim told the crowd that Act 97 removed all county authority to approve or deny applications for geothermal drilling and power generation projects. The right of county home rule was erased, he said. The second new law, Act 55, authority to authorize exploration, had been transferred to a new entity, the Public Land Development Corp., which also had power over other developments. Act 55 has since been repealed, though Act 97 remains in force.

“I approve of geothermal energy,” Kim told the crowd in Puna, “as long as it respects the rights of the people. But Act 97 has no rules on where to drill, no rules for a county permitting process. It took it all away. Act 97 must be repealed. That is why I ran.”

Among the local residents in the audience was Russell Ruderman, the newly elected state senator from Puna. That evening, Kim asked for his help at the Legislature to overturn Act 97 and reinstate home rule. Early this year, Ruderman introduced a bill to repeal Act 97 and Kim flew to Honolulu to testify on its behalf.

Their efforts were in vain. “It was the worst day of my life,” Kim said after the Legislature blocked the repeal effort. But Ruderman hasn’t given up. He confirms that in the upcoming legislative session, he will introduce a bill to amend Act 97 to restore county oversight over the permitting process for geothermal projects.

As spelled out by the schedule in HELCO’s Geothermal Request for Proposals, the six bids received by April 30, 2013, were to be evaluated and the winners selected by the end of August 2013. But the winners were not announced then and it may be March 2014 before HELCO announces which company or companies are selected to complete the next phase of geothermal energy generation.

Puna Concerns

Puna is the easternmost of Hawaii Island’s nine districts. On its own, it is almost the size of Kauai, and is a mix of agricultural and residential properties, with a few commercial and tourist locations, too. Those opposed to geothermal don’t want new power plants in Puna or any industrial development that might come with them.

Their list of concerns is long: health and safety questions; the vibrations and noise of 12-hour-per-day drilling; potential pollution of groundwater; construction traffic congestion on narrow and sometimes one-lane roads; new overhead transmission lines and mandated easements through private property; evacuation plans for schoolchildren and others; and more.

Two new areas of concern have recently been added.

Earthquakes have been a constant on the Big Island since Pele was born, but now there are fears that underground “fracking” may intensify or even cause earthquakes. To date, high-pressure fracturing of deep rock layers has been primarily used for natural gas and oil development. But now the new technology, called advanced or enhanced hydrolic fracturing, where cold water is pumped down into hot rock formations to produce steam, is being introduced at some geothermal developments (see sidebar on page 131 for one case in Switzerland). Fracking has not previously been used in Hawaii, but some opponents raise this concern: If the geological formations beneath Puna are not porous enough for other geothermal methods, will the winning bidders resort to fracking? As on the mainland, there are fears in Hawaii about fracking, which some scientists believe may have triggered earthquakes.

A bill to ban fracking passed Hawaii County Council on a 7-0 vote, with two members absent, during first reading in October.

Puna Pono Alliance members also fear that new sources of electric power could attract energy-intensive industries to the area. IDG, one of the likely bidders on the new geothermal plant, is promoting its native-to-native business model. “IDG intends to make ancillary steam available to create low-cost power for small businesses and agriculture,” says an IDG ad.

Hawaii is the state most dependent on fossil fuels to generate electricity, so, in 2008, the state government partnered with the federal Department of Energy to establish the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative. The main goal: For Hawaii to meet 70 percent of its energy needs by 2030 through energy efficiency and renewable energy. With a combination of local solar, hydro, wind and geothermal, Hawaii Island is already leading the way, with renewables supplying more than 40 percent of its total electricity usage. Another 50 megawatts of geothermal power would put Hawaii Island even further ahead on renewable energy.

The key question is: Can Hawaii produce geothermal in a safe and healthy way? To provide the last word on that subject, I turned to Jeff Mikulina, who has both strong environmental and renewable-energy credentials. He’s the former director of the Sierra Club’s Hawaii chapter and currently serves as executive director of the Blue Planet Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for all forms of renewable energy.

“We are bullish on geothermal,” Mikulina says. “It is the largest alternative resource in Hawaii. There are lessons to be learned from New Zealand, where projects were handled respectfully.

“(In Hawaii) we should engage the community. At the same time,” he cautions, “we must compare the relative impacts of burning oil versus the potential impacts of geothermal projects.”

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