Residents vent concerns about ‘Repower Project’ at Puna geothermal plant on Big Island
June 2, 2023, 11:31 AM HST
* Updated June 5, 10:42 AM
The 30-year-old Puna Geothermal Venture, the Big Island renewable energy power plant that drills into Kīlauea for stored heat in the volcano, has a long history of public distrust.
The facility opened in 1993 and is constructed on a site adjacent to failed experiment wells in the 1970s and 80s that were said to have gas leaks that some residents say resulted in illnesses. The geothermal plant shut down in May 2018 when the catastrophic Kīlauea eruption surrounded it with lava. It did not resume producing power until November 2020.
These experiences are still fresh for some of the older residents who attended Thursday’s Puna Geothermal Venture public meeting about its draft Environmental Impact Statement — a necessary part of the approval process for the plant’s proposed “Repower Project.”
Julie Mitchell, executive director from the Ku’ikahi Mediation Center, oversaw the tension-filled meeting with the attendees overwhelmingly against the plant’s proposed changes. Tears from elders, outbursts from community members, and expressions of extreme mental and overall health concerns lasted into the evening.
On March 16, 2022, the Public Utilities Commission approved an amended contract between Puna Geothermal Venture and Hawaiian Electric that will regulate power generation at the geothermal plant through the year 2052.
In the “Repower Project” proposal, the current 12 operating power-generating units would be replaced with up to four upgraded power-generating units that are more efficient and quieter, according to the draft EIS.
In phase 1, the capacity of the geothermal plant would increase from 38 to 46 megawatts with three new upgraded power-generating units. The 8-megawatt increase alternative is based on the amount of geothermal energy production approved by the Public Utilities Commission in the amended contract.
In phase 2, production would be further increased to 60 megawatts, with the addition of one more upgraded power-generating unit. This total production alternative is based on the amount of energy allowed by the Geothermal Resource Permit issued by the County of Hawaiʻi.
Puna Geothermal provides the renewable energy to Hawaiian Electric, which distributes it around the island. Before the 2018 eruption, Puna Geothermal was providing 38 megawatts that made up about 31% of the Big Island’s renewable energy portfolio
The Repower Project would be constructed within the current plant facility fence line. Most of the existing infrastructure and buildings would remain for the project, including administration buildings, the control room, maintenance areas, well pads and the gathering system.
Puna Geothermal Venture, a subsidiary of global energy company Ormat Technologies, currently generates between 22 to 30 megawatts, with one megawatt powering about 650 homes, said Mike Kaleikini, director of Puna Geothermal Venture.
The Public Utilities Commissionʻs approval for the Repower Project came with the condition that Puna Geothermal Venture perform an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Stantec, a contractor hired by Puna Geothermal Venture, began working on the draft EIS in early 2022.
The public comment period for the draft Environmental Impact Statement is open until June 22. (Information about how to do so is at the end of the story).
At Thursday’s meeting at the Pāhoa Family and Community Center, Kaleikini and representatives from Stantec talked about the draft EIS and the approval process, but did not advocate for the proposed project and how it would benefit the community.
Instead, they listened to residents venting their concerns and fears.
Emily Naeole, born and raised in the area, said she remembered what it was like when the plant first came to town. She said she lost her daughter from whooping cough during that time.
“I know what history was like. I’m 66 years old; I was 19 when my baby girl died,” she said.
She recalled years ago when the plant “blew up. It sounded like a rocket shooting up in the air for three days.”
Native Hawaiian resident Palikapu Dedman said the draft EIS did not properly represent the overall cultural impact due to its lack of input from traditional cultural practitioners.
“Who do you use to look at this if it’s proper about the impacts on Native Hawaiians?” he asked. “Who are you going to find as an expert? There’s no expert! If you didn’t grow up with these traditions then that’s it — you got to take my word for it.”
Many other residents talked about the need to explore alternative energy options such as solar, and frustration that the new EIS study referenced older research, data collection and didn’t explore the impacts of certain Native Hawaiian species.
Ben Cole was among the residents concerned that the draft referenced old research from the 1990’s and thought more research should be done on the change in geology since the recent volcano flow. He is fundraising to conduct an independent company to research for the draft.
“No more bought and paid research,” he said.
At the end of the meeting, Hawai‘i County Council member Ashley Kierkiewicz reflected on the overall night: “The public doesn’t trust the information coming out.
“They practiced a lot of restraint. Think about it. This is decades of frustration. It’s all coming to an end. And you look at the studies that are out there and the data is inconclusive. And so when they bring forward the stories of what’s happened to them over time, I can’t help but feel that we have to do something to corroborate.”
She said it is worth exploring and investigating the overall impact on the community.
“We don’t know the extent of the health and environmental impacts because we don’t have any comprehensive studies with data to refer to,” she said.
She is advocating to bring back the Adler reports, which came about during Mayor Billy Kenoi’s administration, and produced by a geothermal and health assessment task force. The mediator was Peter Adler, whom the report is named after, and she said “pulled together geothermal’s biggest critics for a comprehensive plan.”
“And so in it, there’s an 8-point plan where they call for a comprehensive study of the vibrations, the noise, exposure to chemicals over time. What does that mean to somebody? Because there is nothing out there that documents the impact to communities,” she said.
Comments about the draft Environmental Impact Statement can also be submitted via email to [email protected] and [email protected], or mailed to Michele Lefebvre, P.O. Box 191, Hilo, HI 96721 and County of Hawaii Planning Department, Aupuni Center, 101 Pauahi Street, Suite 3, Hilo, HI 96720.
Officials said all substantive comments will be addressed during the next phase of the process, which is preparation of the final Environmental Impact Statement.
Information from this story has been upgraded due to a spelling error.