Chair’s Report 2016 Q2

By Nelson Ho
Despite geothermal energy being over 40 years old in Hawai’i, it continues to stumble into minefields as it attempts to expand its role as an energy resource. Far from encouraging “smart energy, smart growth, and smart businesses,” the land use policies of geothermal developers have created a gauntlet of outraged communities. Let’s help aspiring political leaders who listen to what the ‘aina is saying. Pay attention to your local political races and note the Sierra Club endorsements.

Three environmentally risky energy projects on Hawai’i Island just dropped off the radar.

By Cory Harden

First, Ormat, parent company of Puna Geothermal Venture (PGV), withdrew from contract negotiations with Hawai’i Electric Light Company (HELCO). The contract would have been for a new geothermal plant to provide 25 more megawatts of geothermal energy on Hawai’i Island. HELCO was requiring an adjustable power output, but that’s difficult to do with geothermal powerplants.

Meanwhile, PGV faces a lawsuit over noisy all-night drilling last year, and neighbors have raised serious concerns for years over dangerous hydrogen sulfide emissions.  

Secondly, the University of Hawai’i pulled out of geothermal research projects on Hualalai in the face of shrinking funding, loss of staff, and a lawsuit over the need for state-mandated environmental assessment.

Lastly, HELCO expects to terminate a power purchase agreement with Hu Honua for failure to meet contract deadlines. Hu Honua planned to generate electricity (where?) by burning trees and other biomass. Sierra Club and neighbors voiced concerns about air and water quality, and about noisy trucks crowding neighborhood roads.

Still on the radar, unfortunately, is a bill before the State legislature to override County regulation of geothermal development.

Puna is fighting back after a triple whammy

By Cory Harden

  1. A geothermal release while residents were trapped in their homes by near-hurricane conditions and blocked roads, after trees and power lines fell. Monitors for hazardous gases went down, because the power went off and there was no backup generator. Several residents report falling asleep for hours, then feeling unwell for days afterwards. The release could have been prevented by simply shutting off the geothermal plant before the storm.
  2. Storm effects–damage to homes, blocked roads, and loss of power and communication (for weeks, in places).
  3. A quickly scheduled election that drew an unsuccesful lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union–some roads were still blocked and people were still struggling to meet basic needs.

Sierra Club supports a hard look at geothermal safety, and dealing with the invasive albizia trees that caused many of the road blockages. (Many albizias remain.)
Moku Loa group supports the efforts of activists who have intervened in the effort by the Thirty Meter Telescope corporation and the University of Hawaii to expand the industrial footprint on the unique geologic landscape and fragile habitat of endemic flora and fauna of the Mauna Kea summit area. Judicial review by the Third Circuit and Intermediate Court of Appeal are pending. Meanwhile the effects of climate change, more pronounced at higher elevations, have led to drier conditions, impacting wekiu bug populations and the water level at Lake Waiau.

The Kealakehe Wastewater Treatment Plant in Kona has been dumping sewage into a hole in the ground for twenty years where it then goes into the ocean causing pollution. A recent federal decision won by Sierra Club and other groups on Maui ruled such discharges are illegal. So, Sierra Club is looking to end the illegal discharges by Hawaii County and go back into court and force recycling of the treated effluent which has always been the plan.

The County is forging ahead with plans for a garbage incinerator, despite major concerns. It may burn material that could be recycled or used for compost and mulch. The County would have to pay if it didn’t produce enough garbage to burn–as O’ahu just paid. Risks from toxic smoke and ash would have to be dealt with.

Taxpayers would be locked into a 30-year contract for a $125 million project–probably the biggest in County history. Sierra Club continues to publicize concerns and support zero waste, and partnered with Recycle Hawai’i on candidate forums highlighting these issues

Geothermal Update

by Cory Harden, Conservation Co-chair

Geothermal protections are being dismantled, new projects are forging ahead, and many risks from ongoing operations at Puna Geothermal Venture (PGV) remain unabated.

For years, geothermal projects were limited to designated subzones, and county planning commissions could deny geothermal permits. But since the State passed Act 97 two years ago, geothermal wells can be drilled anywhere and counties can’t stop them.

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs recently voted to invest in a consortium formed by Innovations Development Group (IDG) to bid on building a geothermal plant. Kealoha Estate offered IDG about 400 acres in Pohoiki for the plant–near the only safe ocean access in Puna.

Community protection plans have not kept pace with expansion plans. PGV’s history includes one blowout, one near-blowout, and a pentane explosion and fire. Few lessons have been learned, as an accidental release of hydrogen sulfide from PGV demonstrated this past March. Hawaii County Civil Defense emergency response teams measured the hydrogen sulfide levels at nearly 100 times higher than the levels recorded by PGV monitors. A voluntary evacuation center opened—but the evacuation route passed through a high-exposure area.

Last spring, residents reported losing sleep during 100 days of 24-hour noise from PGV’s drilling of a new well. Soon after, 25 homeowners applied for relocation assistance.

Sierra Club, with Puna Pono Alliance, has contacted DOH, Civil Defense, and County Planning, seeking ways to protect citizens from the hazards of ongoing and future geothermal operations.