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New Zealand Geothermal Experience Touted At Wainaku Center

September 18, 2013, 11:36 AM HST (Updated September 25, 2013, 1:18 PM)
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Correction: Sandra Erhu does not represent Kawerau A8D Ahu Whenua Trust in New Zealand. She is general manager for the exploratory geothermal project Taheke 8C. Tawrihi Morehu is Maori Elder and Chairperson of Taheke 8C. The Taheke 8C project currently has three exploratory wells operating in New Zealand but is not producing power. Eru’s comments at the Wainaku Center on Sept. 17 were made exclusively in reference to the Taheke 8C project. The article below has been amended.

Geothermal energy drilling is a noisy, smelly 24-hour operation, said Sandra Eru, general manager for geothermal project Taheke 8C, which has three exploratory wells in New Zealand.

But Eru said it’s safe energy and Hawaii is “fortunate to have geothermal on its doorstep with the potential to return so many benefits.”

The Maori Trust attorney spoke to about 40 people Tuesday night at a private gathering at Wainaku Center in Hilo, sponsored by Huena Power, part of Innovations Development Group, a native Hawaiian renewable-energy development firm founded in 1998 by Roberta Cabral.

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Huena is one of several energy development firms that have submitted bids for a contract with HELCO to develop a 50-megawatt geothermal project on the Big Island. The winning bid on the estimated $200 million project is expected to be announced before the end of September.

Puna Geothermal Venture currently operates the only geothermal plant in Hawaii in Puna, with capacity of up to 38MW.

Maori-Trust-Attorney-Sandra-Eru

Maori Trust Attorney Sandra Eru pointed to a study showing exposure to low levels of hydrogen sulfide gas could be beneficial. Photo by Hunter Bishop.

IDG, a Hawaii-based planning and development firm, is partners with New Zealand’s Eastland Group and the Kawerau A8D Ahu Whenua Trust, currently operating a 10MW geothermal plant and planning a new 50MW geothermal plant in New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty area.

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Huena Power has conducted a multi-million dollar campaign to win support for its native Hawaiian-based proposal for the HELCO contract, including a series of television commercials that feature a variety of community leaders in support of Huena Power.

Tuesday’s gathering was an effort to bring IDG’s New Zealand experience with geothermal to community leaders first-hand in Hilo.

Maori Elder Tawhiri Morehu, head of the trust, also spoke to the Hilo group, following a similar event held in Honolulu on Friday.

Morehu and Eru, and IDG in its proposal to HELCO, emphasized “native-to-native” partnerships in developing alternative energy projects that provide benefits for indigenous people.

“The native-to-native model enshrines cultural values indigenous to all native peoples,” Eru said. “Retaining the cultural integrity of the land is as important as maintaining the scientific integrity of the project.”

Morehu said his key values for the trustees are “to work the land as best as possible for the shareholders (beneficiaries), and to work the land how we want to do it.”

Huena has received $1.25 million from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs to help win the bid from HELCO. Eastland has invested more than $1 million in the project, funds which were converted from a previous loan.

Eru addressed several safety concerns often expressed by geothermal opponents.

Eru said some residents live as close as 328 yards to the New Zealand plant without health or safety issues and only occasional noise complaints. Eru said she personally takes calls and acts to reduce the noise.

The plant does no open venting to the atmosphere, she said, and “chemical fracking does not happen.”

“Geothermal drilling does not cause increased risk of earthquakes,” she added. “They are natural phenomena. To say they are a byproduct of geothermal is an emotive statement that’s not proven.”

“It would be wrong to downplay the existence of toxic gases” in geothermal fields, she said, but “they are naturally occurring, not the result of geothermal.

“For the (live)stock or for us — no ill effects, only smell.”

Exposure to low levels of toxic hydrogen sulfide (H2S) gas, with its characteristic rotten-egg smell, might even be beneficial to human sexual health, Eru said, based on surprising studies by Italian scientists.

“Small quantities are good for the body,” Eru said.

“We’ve had a few twins born to lambs on the ranch lately,” she quipped. “Maybe it works.”

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