Editorial: Get geothermal plant back on line
A different kind of force may erupt in the coming months than what Hawaii island witnessed in last year’s volcanic activity.
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A different kind of force may erupt in the coming months than what Hawaii island witnessed in last year’s volcanic activity. The operation of the Puna Geothermal Venture plant has been controversial, from its beginnings in 1992 until the Kilauea lava flows shut it down last spring, so its proposed reboot is likely to generate new heat.
Because the eruption destroyed the substation where the generated electricity is conveyed to the grid, and new transmission lines must be run for the reconnection, there will be an opening for raising those concerns again — and for calls that the state Public Utilities Commission approve the plan.
The best outcome would be for the commission to grant that renewed authority, as long as the agency takes the opportunity to ensure the best possible benefit to the ratepayer and the general public.
The PUC signoff is required because the lines will follow a new route, along an access road PGV built to serve the plant.
Among the most vocal opponents of the plant have been residents of the neighboring Leilani Estates and Pohoiki subdivisions who have complained about noise and emissions from the plant.
The release of gas has led to fines for PGV from the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Health. And this is on top of the well blowout that occurred during drilling in 1991, an episode that surely fueled the opposition, right at the outset.
The eruption changed the landscape substantially, destroying some 700 homes in the surrounding area, so there may be fewer immediate neighbors. Still, such issues are likely to resurface, and PGV will have to address what steps will be taken, or what new technologies might exist, to lessen environmental concerns.
The public — the electricity ratepayer, specifically — may be in an optimal position to press for improvements in the operation, and in their own costs. The geothermal company has been in negotiation with the utility, Hawaii Electric Light Co., a division of Hawaiian Electric Industries that provides service to the Big Island.
These talks were proposed even before the eruption, said Jim Kelly, HELCO spokesman, in order to refine the power purchase agreement to align better with current renewable energy prices. In addition, he said, PGV will want to extend its contract, which expires in 2027.
This security will help the company get back on track. And ratepayers should hope that striking the new deal could work out in their favor. It is the PUC’s job to advocate toward that end, as much as possible.
Others are not convinced this is the best course. Marco Mangelsdorf, a solar-energy industry executive, said the location within a “seismically active” lava zone is risky and said other means of renewable energy generation could be pursued.
Solar is indeed an important element in the state’s renewables portfolio; it’s crucial to fulfilling the ambitious mandate of 100 percent green energy by 2045.
But in order to clear that hurdle, it’s also essential to include multiple resources within that portfolio. Geothermal energy is a powerful part of the equation.
For Hawaii island, the geothermal resource has been key in generating 25 percent of the county’s energy needs. According to HELCO, it would have been at 29%, before the shutdown.
Geothermal energy is what the utilities view as “firm power” — delivering at a dependable level that the power grids can accommodate with few technical complications.
It should remain part of the energy picture, especially if the costs can be more easily borne by Hawaii island residents, who have been through so much hardship already.