Honua Ola Bioenergy held a rally Monday morning with about 100 employees and supporters on the Big Island to protest the potential loss of jobs, and later in the day filed a motion for reconsideration with the state Public Utilities Commission after the agency struck down an amended power purchase agreement to build a biomass plant in Pepeekeo.
The motion for reconsideration seeks to overturn the PUC’s July 9 decision that terminates an agreement with Hawaii Electric Light Co. allowing the utility to buy power that would be produced by burning eucalyptus trees growing along the Hamakua Coast as well as other timber. Honua, which spent more than six years and over $400 million building the biomass plant, which is now 99% completed, said if it is prevented from operating, 64 current employees will be laid off, and 145 future ancillary positions will be lost.
Honua’s motion filed by its counsel, Yamamoto Caliboso LLLC, requests that the PUC vacate its order and seeks a hearing that Honua says is justified on several grounds, including the negative impact on Honua’s property considering it spent over $400 million relying on prior PUC approvals. The motion also cited the “devastating effect” of preventing the infusion of new money into the Hawaii island economy and the loss of hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in tax revenue for the state for the next 30 years.
The motion also cited the negative impact on the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard goals (100% clean energy by 2045), and prolonged use of high amounts of price-volatile imported oil by allowing fossil fuel plants to continue operating for up to 25 years.
In addition, it cited the negative impact of eventually replacing firm (24/7) fossil fuel plants with biofuels that are significantly more expensive than Honua, the negative impact of maintaining high levels of greenhouse gas emissions instead of significantly reducing GHG emissions with Honua, and the negative impact on the state’s goal of promoting renewable energy in conjunction with agricultural activities.
Honua, formerly known as Hu Honua Bioenergy, said it wants the PUC to expedite its decision-making and render a decision within two to three weeks.
“We are not going to accept an unjust and unfair ruling from a state commission whose members clearly do not understand our island, our community or our people,” Honua President and CEO Warren Lee said in a statement. “The PUC doesn’t seem to care that we are in the middle of a pandemic and that we are experiencing record high unemployment on Hawaii Island. It doesn’t bother them to pull the plug on our project when it’s 99% complete and take away jobs from 60-plus people, and also extinguish more than 140 additional jobs that Honua Ola would support.”
The PUC was put in the position of once again ruling on the Honua power purchase agreement after its 2017 approval of the deal between HELCO and Honua was challenged by the nonprofit environmental organization Life of the Land, which argued the PUC violated state law when it approved the agreement. In May 2019 the state Supreme Court agreed and rejected the deal between HELCO and Honua, writing in its order that when the PUC approved the power purchase agreement, it failed to “explicitly consider” the state’s goal of reducing greenhouse gases, which is required under state law. The PUC’s decision was vacated, and the case was remanded to the PUC to consider the emission of greenhouse gases in its decision and to allow Life of the Land to be part of the proceedings.
Upon reexamining the case, the PUC this time revoked the previously approved 2017 request from HELCO to waive competitive bidding for the project because the Supreme Court vacated the overall decision. The PUC also previously granted a waiver in 2008. The two power purchase agreements were approved in 2013 and 2017. Just like the 2017 decision, the 2013 agreement also had been stalled by a legal challenge.
The emission of greenhouse gases was a major concern of Life of the Land Executive Director Henry Curtis, who challenged the PUC’s 2017 ruling that led to the Supreme Court remanding the case to the PUC. Greenhouse gases can have far-ranging environmental and health effects, according to the publication National Geographic.
Curtis said Monday that Life of the Land was concerned with more than just greenhouse gas emissions.
“We have been in 50+ PUC dockets and have never restricted our analysis to GHG,” Curtis said in an email. “In the proceeding (with the Supreme Court), we raised issues of financial cost, air/water/land pollution, biodiversity, agricultural impacts, etc.”
PUC chief counsel Caroline Ishida said Friday in an email that because the PUC denied HELCO’s request for a waiver from competitive bidding, consideration of the project’s greenhouse gas emissions was rendered moot.
“Competitive bidding is required for new renewable energy projects, and a waiver from competitive bidding is considered the exception, not the rule,” she said.
“The PUC noted the potential benefits of the Hu Honua project but also cited the monthly bill increases for HELCO’s customers and the long-term impacts of a 30-year contract with a cost premium of 2-3 (times) over other renewable energy sources with similar operational characteristics,” she added.
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