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Geothermal is a bigger deal than we thought

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Geothermal is a proven, firm source that could keep us going for thousands of years. Will geothermal be the next big renewable in the development of our statewide energy initiative, or will it be constrained by present limitations?

Right about now, 30 megawatts of wind is going online from Kahuku. If you add the 100MW we are getting from the new biofuel Peaking Plant in Kapolei and the 70MW of additional wind we will be getting from Kawailoa, we will soon have 200MW of Oahu-based renewables, still only a fraction of Oahu’s demand.

But renewables take land, and the barrier on Oahu is the lack of industrial land. Oahu is crowded, and no one wants renewables in his backyard. This NIMBY (not in my backyard) demeans our clean energy aspirations, but the hard reality is that to run Oahu on renewables we’ll need to bring them in from neighbor islands.

The undersea cable becomes essential. The deal announced last week between Castle & Cooke and Hawaiian Electric Co. contemplates 200MW from Lanai and 200MW from Molokai. That deal requires the cable to create an interisland grid that would make these renewables, mostly wind, available to Oahu. No cable, no deal.

Enter the magma. Mainland, not local, researchers have recently found that Hawaii’s magma is as shallow as 1.9 miles from the surface, making it much more accessible for geothermal than we thought. With this new accessibility, geothermal on the Big Island and Maui could be substantially increased. If we extend the cable to the Big Island, its geothermal would be available to Oahu.

The pace and popularity of public meetings about statewide renewables is quickening. The January calendar is bedecked with pre-session meetings by and with energy officials, legislators, industry and the public, focusing on renewable development, including geothermal, and the cable. The Energy Policy Forum will present its next briefing on Jan. 21 at the Capitol.

Puna Geothermal Venture is now producing 30MW and will soon be able to go to 38MW, but given its potential against wind and PV, that’s small and a small fraction of its capacity. Are we limiting it because we don’t want to keep all our renewables in one basket? Is it because we want to keep the peace among competing developers? Or is it because the protest of the 1990’s isn’t over?

Those who fought again geothermal in the 1990s seem to have had a change of heart. Attorney Mililani Trask and her colleague Robbie Cabral would like to see the Hawaiian community get a benefits package from geothermal, like the model that has been developed to satisfy cultural concerns in New Zealand.

Richard Ha, a sustainability farmer in Hamakua, is on board. He wants to put lots more emphasis on geothermal. Ha is also part of the group led by former DBEDT energy administrator Ted Peck that would like to acquire HECO. Their plan, long on geothermal, has been met with skepticism, but that’s based on concerns about the group’s viability rather than the viability of geothermal.

Interconnection is more than a cable, it’s the conceptual connection of our islands, a notion that will hopefully survive the project itself. With all these current happenings, and discovery of the magma, the outlines clarify. If you weren’t excited about renewables until now, this would be a great time to start.

Jay Fidell, a longtime business lawyer, founded ThinkTech Hawaii, a digital media company that reports on Hawaii’s tech and energy sectors of the economy. He can be reached at


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