Honolulu Star-Advertiser

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Editorial: Hu Honua can fit in energy future

Finding Hawaii’s route to better balance in its energy strategy has many twists and turns, largely because the landscape of technology, environment and economy keeps changing beneath everyone’s feet.

This is why the state has struggled to settle on a pathway for Hu Honua Bioenergy LLC. The company is nearing completion of a $474 million wood-burning biomass plant and is seeking to be part of the energy portfolio for Hawaii island. The project has landed for multiple reviews by the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC) and the Hawaii Supreme Court.

Some of the history: In 2008 and again in 2017, the PUC granted Hu Honua a waiver from competitive bidding requirements. In 2013 and 2017 power-purchase agreements with the Hawaii Electric Light Co. were approved, then seeming to be a reasonable deal.

The realities have changed, as green-energy realities always do, but there should be a way for the PUC and Hu Honua to come to terms and ink a final deal, at long last.

Among the principal concerns raised by the commission’s consumer advocate: that locking in a long-term rate amid marketplace uncertainties would not be a service to Hawaii Electric Light Co. ratepayers.

Further, there’s little doubt that the burning of trees for fuel is not optimal at a time when carbon emissions have become such an overriding environmental liability. This was a basis of the 2017 legal challenge by Life of the Land: the nonprofit public interest group won a 2019 Hawaii Supreme Court ruling that the PUC had to hold an evidentiary hearing specifically on greenhouse gas emissions.

Then in 2020 the commission revoked the waiver and closed its docket on Hu Honua. The company went back to court to compel the PUC to reopen the docket and hold the hearing, giving the project another chance.

Last year, the court ruled in favor of the project, and the evidentiary hearing began. Not surprisingly, there is still a lot of nervousness around the deal.

Ultimately, the PUC should look favorably on this project — but it would be wise to define a strict list of conditions for the plant operators, including a negotiated timetable for possibly arriving at an adjusted purchase agreement more favorable to ratepayers.

Along these lines, the PUC Consumer Advocate analysis also expressed doubts about the public benefit. The commission, according to its finding, should evaluate “the hidden costs of GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions, environmental and health impacts” along with all the more conventional costs.

Though this was not Hu Honua’s hoped-for endorsement, project executives are working earnestly to persuade the public that they can be held to account.

In an editorial board meeting with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, executives said the emissions would be held within limits and further offset by the replanting of new trees as a feedstock for burning, sequestering more carbon in the trees.

That, they said confidently, would make the operation “carbon negative,” a standard they would agree to meet as a condition of the PUC permit approval.

This commitment was further laid out in a post-hearing brief. The company said it “is essentially giving the PUC a ‘blank check’ to impose its own assumptions, methodologies and conditions” to ensure a carbon-negative operation.

This check would be worth having. The PUC has to weigh the uncertainties around the project against its potential value. In Hu Honua’s favor: Unlike other “greener” energy projects such as solar, its biomass plant would produce “firm power” — with the around-the-clock availability of the oil it displaces, and locally produced. The jobs it yields would be local, too, a plus for the Big Island.

If anything, current events underscore why energy self-sufficiency remains a central state policy aim. Hu Honua could be part of Hawaii’s energy picture, as the outlines are filled in.

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