Dozens Vent About Geothermal Before Council
by Dave Smith
It was supposed to be a 45-minute presentation to a County Council committee by the president of Hawaii Electric Light Co. addressing media coverage of geothermal and other energy issues the utility faces.
But dozens of people with plenty to say turned it into a nearly five-hour marathon.
More than half of the 50 people in attendance today at the county building or appearing via teleconferencing from satellite offices around the county took the opportunity to testify on energy-related subjects, and most were opposed to more geothermal development in Puna.
Many of those testifying said that the lessons of the past – including leaks and a 1991 well blowout two years at the Puna Geothermal Venture plant in Pohoiki that resulted in 31 hours of uncontrolled steam venting – should be kept in mind when discussing geothermal expansion.
Some of those testifying said PGV, which has been producing power since 1993, is still a bad neighbor.
Aurora Martinovich, a resident of Lanipuna Gardens and PGV’s closest neighbor, said noise from the drilling of a new well lately has kept her up for the past 45 nights, forcing her to sleep during the day when the noise is taken in the opposite direction by trade winds.
Others who live in the area say they are also bothered by lights and the noise at all hours.
Diane Brucato-Thomas, who lives on the edge of Pu‘ulena Crater, about one-third of a mile from the plant, said that there should be a buffer zone “of at least 10 miles” around any new geothermal development.
Responding to a comment from HELCO President Jay Ignacio that additional geothermal power would allow the utility to retire some existing fossil fuel plants, area resident Bob Petricci said that could instead by achieved by using solar energy to replace the roughly third of electricity that goes toward heating water.
“We can mothball power plants with solar water heaters, so we should be doing that,” he said.
Petricci and others also noted that recent decreases in the cost of photovoltaic panels means that solar electric systems are becoming more affordable.
However, HELCO officials have noted that they need firm sources of power to cover the peak hours for electrical demand which occur between 5 and 9 p.m.
HELCO, which already receives 37% of its electricity from renewable sources, recently notified the Public Utilities Commission of its intent to seek proposals from companies interested in providing 50 additional megawatts of geothermal power.
Others testifying today said that they considered geothermal development to be sacrilegious to the volcano goddess Pele.
“You’re drilling wells into Pele’s belly,” said Bett Bidleman, testifying from the council’s Pahoa office.
Also testifying was Wallace Ishibashi, co-chairman of the Geothermal Working Group created by the Legislature.
The group’s report in January said that the east rift of Kilauea volcano is capable of producing 1,400 megawatts of electricity, more than seven times the Big Island’s peak demand.
“I can understand the religious aspect of the Hawaiians, but we’re stuck in the middle here,” Ishibashi said, adding that not everyone can afford solar.
“We’ve got families that have to fix their roof before they can put anything on it,” he said.
Some of those testifying were critical of the working group’s report, saying that it only compared geothermal to the fossil fuel and didn’t factor in other renewable sources such as solar.
The contention between opponents and supporters of geothermal development even spilled out into the hallway after the meeting as heated words were exchanged between the former and representatives of the Innovations Development Group.
IDG, a company made up of native Hawaiians which attempts to promote geothermal development in ways that assist indigenous people, had earlier given a presentation about its efforts which include geothermal projects in New Zealand.