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Hawaii Senator Blasts Agencies for Geothermal Project Standstill

Attorneys and a state Senator are getting involved in a still-unawarded geothermal contract Hawaii Electric Light Co. (HELCO) had originally said would be awarded before the end of 2013. The RFP was posted in early 2013 and asked for a 50-MW influx of geothermal power development on the Big Island of Hawaii. Disruptions caused by the continuing delay include losses of the companies that submitted proposals, and a breach of public trust lawsuit has been brought against the State of Hawaii; Governor Neil Abercrombie; the Public Utilities Commission (PUC); Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs; Department of Business, Economic Development, and Tourism; Hawaiian Electric Company (HECO); Maui Electric Company; Hawaii Electric Light Company (HELCO); and Hawaiian Electric Industries (HEI).

Hawaii State Senator Malama Solomon requested an explanation from both the PUC and Boston Pacific Company, the Independent Observer of the proposal, in a January letter. But consultant Sam Choi of Boston Pacific also sent a letter that indicates delays are likely due to poor planning by HELCO.

“I strongly believe the recent actions of HECO/HELCO in the Geothermal 50-MW RFP demonstrate that HECO is intent on delaying (and/or preventing) geothermal development on Hawaii Island,” Solomon wrote in her letter. “This is due to HECO’s preference for fossil fuel and bio fuels for its own plants to the detriment of the development and integration of other renewable sources of energy.”

Solomon is Chair of the Committee on Water and Land and actually voted in committee for a Senate bill (S.B. 2940) to ban hydraulic fracturing that some have said is being used to raise opposition against geothermal development. The committee statement says, “[I]ssues of oil/gas leakage, injection of highly pressurized fluids, etc. do not apply to the only relevant application in Hawaii, geothermal drilling, since fracking is used in areas with hot, dry rock with poor permeability rather than the geological formations found in Hawaii. Therefore, this measure may create false impressions of unfounded risks to geothermal production in Hawaii.”

But for many of these same reasons, geothermal developers are opposing the bill. Speaking against the House companion bill (H.B. 2359) in a joint hearing by the House Committees on Energy & Environmental Protection and Water and Land, Mililani Trask, who advises Innovation Development Group, explained that fracking in Hawaii’s already permeable rock does not make sense. “Why do we have this bill? … It’s a fabrication to create hysteria against geothermal development,” she said at the hearing. Innovation Development Group is a local Hawaiian company that has bid on the geothermal RFP.

The Department of Land and Natural Resources provided a statement in opposition to the bill. “The Department does not wish to prohibit the use of any future tools or methods which, if used properly, could help Hawaii’s energy needs, including its Clean Energy Initiative goals. The Department recognizes the concern caused by the potential use of hydraulic fracturing, and if such a method were proposed, would take all necessary steps to ensure that it would adhere to all regulations to ensure public safety and the preservation of this public trust resource.”

Huena Power is another local company seeking explanation for the contract delay. Their counsel representative William Milks has requested a meeting with HELCO and the PUC.

This week Ed Wagner of Mililani, Hawaii circulated information about the delays to energy organizations and stakeholders as well as senators. Wagner is an HEI ratepayer and a plaintiff in the class action case. He opposes the bills that would ban hydraulic fracturing in Hawaii: “It is time for S.B. 2940 / H.B. 2359 ludicrous geo-fracking bills to die and never to be heard from again,” writes Wagner. “They were introduced solely for the purpose of helping HECO stop the use of our vast geothermal resources and support HECO’s use of oil and bio-fuel for another 20 years to protect its profits at all costs.”

The Puna geothermal facility provides 20 percent of power on the Big Island. There is also a significant amount of untapped geothermal in Hawaii, as shown in the visual: 


On the left, USGS heat-in-place estimates show a conservative 95 percent confidence that there are at least 900 MW of geothermal resources, while the mid-range likelihood is closer to 2,200 MW. The broader estimate reveals that geothermal resources could potentially even double the total system power capacity of the State of Hawaii, which was given at ~2,500 MW in EIA’s Hawaii Electricity Profile 2010. On the right, the GeothermEx map of the Big Island shows high-temperature resource areas in orange.

Recognition is growing in the Pacific as well as in the Caribbean region and beyond for the significant benefits of geothermal power to island economies. American Samoa, the Canary Islands, Dominica, Guadeloupe, Jamaica, Nevis, and St. Lucia are just some that have taken steps toward exploring and developing geothermal resources, and Iceland derives all of its power from geothermal and hydro. 

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Leslie is located in Washington DC at the Office of the Geothermal Energy Association and serves on the Renewable Energy World North America Conference and Expo committee.


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