UPDATE: New Lease on Old Geothermal Site Delayed

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UPDATE: The Board of Land and Natural Resources on Friday delayed granting a new lease. According to spokeswoman Deborah Ward, the action was based in part on a request from Hawaii County Council Chairman Dominic Yagong for the NELHA to first provide the council with further information on the lease and the agency’s plans for the site.

Geothermal development in Hawaii could be returning to where it began – next door to the Puna Geothermal Venture plant in Pohoiki.

The state Board of Land and Natural Resources on Friday will consider whether to grant a new geothermal mining lease for the state property in Pohoiki where the first producing well was drilled in the 1970s.

The experimental HGP-A well went on-line in 1982, generating approximately 3 megawatts, roughly enough to power 1,500 homes.

Originally developed through a private-public partnership under the leadership of the US Department of Energy, in 1986 HGP-A was transferred to the state Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii.

Although it was designed to run for only two years, HGP-A continued producing electricity for eight years.


Even before the generation facility was closed down, the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority (NELHA), an agency under the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, in the mid-1980s began experimenting with different uses for the geothermal steam and heat. Those short-lived uses included drying of fruit and lumber and the warming of plant propagation beds.

The well was temporarily plugged in 1992. In 1999, following complaints from the community about ongoing leakage of geothermal fluids and gases, the well was plugged with concrete.

However, NELHA continued to look toward additional uses for geothermal energy. According to NELHA Executive Director Greg Barbour, in 2001 the agency put out a request for proposals for use of the 4-acre HGP-A facility.

Puna Geothermal Venture, which in 1993 began commercial production of electricity on an adjacent parcel of land, was selected to provide some of its heat for additional, similar experiments, but those didn’t pan out either.

“They were never able to find a viable private-sector group that would help them,” Barbour said today in an interview.


He said he believes PGV is currently using the site to store equipment.

Fast-forwarding to July 2011, the NELHA board of directors voted to ask the Board of Land and Natural Resources for an extension of the lease set to expire in 2014.

Barbour said NELHA has been approached by two entities interested in the HGP-A site. He said the interest is in geothermal or research and development projects, but couldn’t elaborate any further because of confidentiality concerns.

Barbour noted that developing alternate energy sources is a prime mission of NELHA, which operates an ocean science and technology park at Keahole Point north of Kailua-Kona.

(The park features large pipelines that bring up cold water from 2,000 feet below the ocean’s surface and others drawing warmer water from 45 feet down. In the early 1980s the differential in temperature was used in an ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) process to generate electricity.


The OTEC program is no longer in existence but the 43-degree water is used as a growth medium for a variety of marine plants and animals, including an R&R site for lobsters en route from Maine to Japan.)

Rather than extend the geothermal mining lease, the staff of the Department of Land and Natural Resources has recommended cancelling the old lease for the HGP-A site and issuing a new one for 65 years. That will be taken up by the land board when it meets Friday in Honolulu.

Barbour said if the new lease is granted, NELHA plans to put out a request for information from companies interested in using the HGP-A site.

“We don’t have any specific proposals in mind,” Barbour said, although he conceded it could involve new drilling for geothermal resource.

Barbour said he believes that any company looking to restart a geothermal operation at HGP-A would first have to obtain a state permit.

“I would think if someone wanted to drill there would be significant opportunity for public input,” he said.

However, what would be required for a new geothermal facility on the site is not clear according to information prepared for the land board by DLNR staff on the proposed geothermal mining lease.

The staff submittal said the new lease would be subject to Chapter 343 of Hawaii Revised Statutes, which is the state law dictating when a project must have an environmental assessment or the more detailed environmental impact statement. It noted that the EIS for the original project was done in 1978.

But the submittal signed by DLNR Chairman William Aila, Jr. also notes that under rules adopted in 1986 by the state’s Environmental Council, “operations, repairs or maintenance of existing structures, facilities, equipment or topographical features, involving negligible or no expansion or change of use beyond that previously existing” would be exempt from Chapter 343.

Aila’s recommendation is for the land board to find that the issuance of the lease “for geothermal purposes is exempt from Chapter 343, HRS, as it will probably have minimal or no significant effect on the environment and is presumed to be exempt from the preparation of an environmental assessment.”

That last statement has caught the eye of anti-geothermal activists, who say the HGP-A project was plagued with hazardous chemical spills, intentional venting of hydrogen sulfide and toxic brine overflowing a settling pond.

“It is unconscionable that BLNR seems poised to approve a 65-year lease of the old HGP-A site with no environmental assessment,” Pohoiki resident Robert Petricci said in testimony submitted to the land board.

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