As a Puna geothermal plant enters its third month of a lava-triggered shutdown, parent company affirmed its commitment to re-opening the facility and has told the 30 full-time workers they will remain on the payroll for at least a year.
But even under the best of circumstances — if the lava flowing through the plant property were to stop today — the 38-megawatt Puna Geothermal Venture facility likely wouldn’t resume providing power for at least a few years.
Road access to the PGV plant has been cut off by the lava, and no one knows when the flow will stop, creating uncertainty about the fate of a $100-million-plus operation that was supplying nearly 30 percent of Hawaii island’s power before the May 3 eruption forced the closure.
The Kiluaea volcanic activity in the lower East Rift Zone already has destroyed more than 600 homes and is continuing to fuel an active river of lava from fissure 8 that flows through PGV’s 815-acre leased parcel. The power plant, including its six production and five injection wells, is concentrated on 40 of those acres.
Lava has covered three of the wells and burned a PGV substation and an adjacent warehouse that held a large drilling rig. At its closest point, the current flow is roughly 1,000 feet from the remaining plant facilities but so far is largely confined to a channel through the property, according to Michael Kaleikini, senior director of Hawaii affairs for Ormat Technologies, PGV’s Reno, Nev.-based parent company.
Ormat executives visited the Big Island a couple weeks ago and voiced their intention to re-open the plant, informing workers that their employment would continue while the company monitors the situation, Kaleikini said.
But he acknowledged the unpredictability of the flow and how that might affect the company’s plans for the facility.
“A couple of months from now our position may change,” Kaleikini told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.
“It’s very premature to give anyone concrete details of what our plans are.”
OBSTACLES TO RESTARTING
What’s clear about the situation is that the controversial plant — opponents say it should never be restarted — faces daunting challenges even under a best-case scenario.
Mayor Harry Kim told the Star-Advertiser that the county will not attempt to clear or fix government roads until there is a minimum of six months of lava inactivity — a policy that dates to 1983.
And even after a six-month stretch of no activity, Kim said he would expect there would be other more pressing priorities involving residential needs before the county embarked on clearing Highway 132, the county road that provides access to the PGV plant.
The fissure 8 flow cuts across the road and shows no sign of slowing.
Asked how long the geothermal plant conceivably could be offline — based on what would have to be done by the county and others to resume operations — Kim said two to three years would be a conservative estimate.
He said it would be premature to say whether the plant should re-open, given the uncertainty of what lies ahead, but Ormat officials will face a “monumental task” if they decide to do so. “If it was my money, I would give it serious thought,” the mayor told the Star-Advertiser.
The current eruption, Kim added, reinforces the position he took decades ago that the PGV site was a poor location for a geothermal plant because it was in the highest risk area — Zone 1 — for lava inundation. “I’m sorry history proved that to be (the case).”
Restoring road access to the plant will be a key part of a restart operation, Kaleikini said.
Although Highway 132, also known as Pahoa-Kapoho Road, is a county thoroughfare, it is part of the federal highway system and therefore qualifies for federal funds, which would enable the state Department of Transportation to assist in restoration efforts, according to DOT officials.
Once road access is restored and workers can safely return to the PGV site, the company expects to need about a year to assess the damage and rebuild and repair facilities, Kaleikini said.
Major work also will be required to restore the connection between the plant and the power grid owned by Hawaii Electric Light Co., the utility that provides electricity to the Big Island. Hawaii Electric has a contract to purchase power from PGV, and over roughly the past decade, the geothermal facility has supplied an average of 22 percent of the island’s needs.
Kilauea’s lava, however, has destroyed Hawaii Electric’s Pohoiki switching station and the utility lines and poles connecting the station to the grid, according to Rhea Lee-Moku, a Hawaii Electric spokeswoman. The switching station took in power from the PGV plant and fed it into the grid.
In an email to the Star-Advertiser, Lee-Moku said that as of mid-June Hawaii Electric estimated it had lost more than 750 utility poles and over 200 transformers to lava.
Lee-Moku noted that the company is working with county Civil Defense and is getting guidance on what areas are unsafe for entry. The utility will not do any restoration work in areas with active eruption activity or under mandatory evacuation orders, she added.
“After the eruption is over, it may be months until the ground is stable enough to support utility poles,” Lee-Moku said. “Repairs won’t begin until a thorough damage assessment is completed and we’ve developed a comprehensive repair plan. We will work as quickly as possible to safely restore power and help our communities rebuild.”
Asked what would be the best-case scenario for geothermal to again be contributing to the island’s power needs, Lee-Moku said the utility can’t estimate “when or whether” that will happen until a comprehensive damage assessment is done and the repair plan developed.
HANGING ON TO HOPE
Ormat officials hope history provides a good indicator of how long the current eruption will last.
Kaleikini referred to a 1955 eruption that was over in about three months and a 1960 eruption that lasted three to four weeks. “We are hoping — that’s all we can do,” he said.
At least once a week, PGV transports workers wearing hazard protection gear to the plant via helicopter to do inspections.
High levels of sulfur dioxide emissions from the volcano make prolonged stays too dangerous, he said. “Safety is No. 1.”
While the plant is shut down, the PGV workers are spending time on safety training and volunteering to help with disaster recovery efforts, Kaleikini said. Some also are being sent to work at Ormat geothermal plants elsewhere.
Kaleikini downplayed criticism from plant opponents who say the facility has released harmful gases over the years.
Compared with what has been released by the volcano during the current eruption, “it’s like a grain of sand,” he said.
Kaleikini said the majority of PGV employees live in Puna. Two workers moved from Leilani Estates homes that have since been destroyed by lava and another has a home elsewhere that is surrounded by lava.
“That’s our community,” Kaleikini said of Puna.