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Big Isle energy plant Hu Honua Bioenergy wins Hawaii Supreme Court appeal

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The Hawaii Supreme Court, giving new life to Hu Honua Bioenergy LLC’s nearly completed biomass plant on Hawaii island, ruled unanimously this morning in favor of the company’s appeal and sent back the case to the state Public Utilities Commission with clear instructions on how to proceed.

This was the second time that the high court has sent the case to the PUC, which previously reversed an earlier decision by denying Hawaii Electric Light Co.’s request for a waiver from competitive bidding.

Both Hu Honua and opposing environmental group Life of the Land, whose appeal landed the case before the Supreme Court the first time, said they were pleased with the court’s opinion.

Hu Honua, which does business as Honua Ola Bioenergy, has been seeking the PUC’s approval to begin operating a $474 million biomass plant in Pepeekeo on the Hama­kua Coast that is 99% complete and will burn trees to produce energy. That energy would be purchased by Hawaii Electric Light Co., now known simply as Hawaiian Electric, under an agreement between the two companies.

In its decision, the court said the waiver from competitive bidding was still in effect and said the parties are fixed in the same position following the court’s 2019 opinion when it sent back the case to the PUC and instructed the PUC to hold an evidentiary hearing on greenhouse gas emissions in connection with Hu Honua’s amended power purchase agreement.

The opinion, written by Supreme Court Associate Justice Todd W Eddins, also was signed by Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark E. Recktenwald and Associate Justices Paula A. Nakayama, Sabrina S. McKenna and Michael D. Wilson.

Wilson, in a concurring opinion, said the majority’s decision gives discretion to the PUC to determine again whether a waiver of competitive bidding should be granted to Hawaii Electric Light Co.

“We are grateful for the Hawaii Supreme Court’s unanimous decision today in favor of Honua Ola Bioenergy,” Honua Ola Bioenergy President Warren Lee said in a statement. “We look forward to the opportunity to present data on how Honua Ola will produce much-needed firm, clean, renewable energy, while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions at the PUC’s evidentiary hearing. We are also thankful for the Court’s clarification that the 2017 waiver from competitive bidding remains valid and in force.”

A legal challenge in 2017 by Life of the Land landed the project for the first time before the Supreme Court. The court ordered the PUC in 2019 to reconsider the power purchase agreement and hold an evidentiary hearing because the agency failed to “explicitly consider” the state’s goal of reducing greenhouse gases, which is required under state law.

Life of the Land Executive Director Henry Curtis said the high court’s latest opinion still could result in the wood-burning plant being rejected.

“We are happy with the Hawaii Supreme Court decision,” he said. “The decision clearly says the Public Utilities Commission may deny the waiver but not use the remand order.”

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