Controversial Big Isle geothermal plant needs public hearing before it returns to service, PUC says
The controversial geothermal power plant in Pohoiki must hold a public hearing and win the approval of the state Public Utilities Commission before it can rebuild transmission lines that were wiped out by last year’s Kilauea eruption.
Mahalo for reading the Honolulu Star-Advertiser!
You're reading a premium story. Read the full story with our Print & Digital Subscription.
Already a subscriber? Log in now to continue reading this story.
The controversial geothermal power plant in
Pohoiki must hold a public hearing and win the approval of the state Public Utilities Commission before it can rebuild transmission lines that were wiped out by last year’s Kilauea eruption.
Puna Geothermal Venture is already in negotiations with Hawaii Electric Light Co. for a new power purchase agreement that would set out terms and prices for the power produced by the rebuilt plant; any new agreement between the companies also will require the approval of the commission, according to a May 9 letter from the commission to HELCO.
Michael Kaleikini, senior director, Hawaii affairs for PGV, said the company still plans to resume power production at the Pohoiki plant by the end of this year, but is reviewing the PUC letter to determine how it might affect PGV’s plans.
HELCO wrote to the PUC in March to outline its agreement with PGV to reopen the plant, which involves rebuilding a switching station in Pohoiki and reconstructing sections of 69 kV transmission lines to reconnect the geothermal plant with the Hawaii island power grid. That work will be done at no cost to HELCO, the company said.
The exact route that the old transmission lines followed is no longer available, but HELCO plans to reconstruct the lines along the new road PGV opened across the lava to access its property, according to the letter.
The PUC replied last week that because the power lines will follow a new route, PUC approval will be required along with a public hearing on the plan to rebuild the transmission lines.
That public hearing process could be contentious. Residents of the Leilani Estates subdivision and the nearby Pohoiki area have complained for years about noise and emissions from the plant, and some alleged they became ill from gases such as hydrogen sulfide that were released by PGV.
The Environmental Protection Agency fined PGV in 2016, and the state Health Department also fined the company in 2015 and again in October for gas releases. The facility also had a dramatic geothermal well blowout in 1991 during drilling that helped fuel long-standing community opposition.
However, the lava flow that destroyed more than 700 homes in Lower Puna and covered three of PGV’s geothermal wells has dramatically changed the landscape around the plant, which now has fewer neighbors.
Kaleikini said there has not been a great deal of opposition to the plant reopening so far. He said some opposition is expected, “but to what extent, it’s not certain,” he said.
Marco Mangelsdorf, president of ProVision Solar Inc., said in a written statement Tuesday that “the fundamental question before us should be: Is it in the best interest of Big Island residents, especially those living in lower Puna, to restart this power plant in one of the most seismically active volcanic lava zones on the planet?”
Mangelsdorf said the letter from the PUC gives area residents a voice in that decision, “especially in light of alternate means to generate renewable energy at significantly less risk and lower cost.”
“Just because Ormat (the parent company of PGV) and HELCO may consider restarting PGV to be a done deal doesn’t simply make it so,” Mangelsdorf wrote.
PGV began work opening a road to restore access to the plant in December, and has been doing preliminary work in the well field, Kaleikini said. The company is evaluating existing wells, and has uncovered one of the three wells that was buried by lava. The ideal situation would be to use existing wells to restart the plant, he said.
All of the generating equipment at the plant is intact, although there was “exposure to the elements” during the eruption, Kaleikini said. The major state permits the plant needs to reopen are already in place, although PGV will need county building permits to reconstruct three air quality monitoring stations and probably some other structures, he said.
Kaleikini said he has no estimate of how much it will cost to restore the PGV plant and resume operations.
The PGV plant has a contract to provide up to
38 megawatts of power to HELCO. When it shut down because of the eruption, that amounted to 29% of the entire power generation on Hawaii island, HELCO spokesman Jim Kelly said.
The geothermal plant is an important component in the state’s drive to shift electricity generation away from fossil fuels and into renewable sources.
Kelly said 44% of the electricity in Hawaii County came from renewable sources in 2018, and PGV was forced to stop producing power in May because of the eruption. If the geothermal plant had been able to continue producing electricity all year, 64% of the island’s electricity would have been produced from renewables, he said.
Geothermal is also important because it is a “firm” renewable power source, unlike wind and
“From a power generation standpoint, solar and geothermal aren’t equivalent,” Kelly said. “Geothermal delivers firm, reliable generation 24 hours a day like a traditional power plant, but without burning fossil fuels. Solar, even with battery storage, is a great resource but it’s also a variable one with limits on how much power it can produce.
Kelly said the contract that sets the price that HELCO pays for the power generated by PGV runs through 2027, but negotiations for a new contract have begun.
PGV will host a community update on efforts to reopen the plant at 4 p.m. Friday at the Pahoa Community Center.