Hawaii takes a close look at geothermal energy

HILO, Hawaii – On the Big Island of Hawaii, the development of geothermal energy production is a hot topic.

With their communities located upon Kilauea, one of the most active volcanoes in the world, the Hawaiian people have revered the volcano and her goddess Pele for centuries. In the face of astronomical utility costs and depleting fossil fuel resources, Hawaiians are looking closely at the pros and cons of using Pele’s energy as a means to support the island’s peoples and economy into the future.

At a recent University of Hilo Kipuka Native Hawaiian Student Center’s Eia Hawaii Lecture Series, these themes were front and center providing a forum for individuals to share their insight and perspectives.

Kalei Tsuha Nu’uiwa, Kamehameha Schools cultural researcher and instructor, Native Hawaiian, said that she is neither for or against the use of geothermal energy.

She is, she explained, very “pro-Hawaiian environment,” representing those who support the cultural Hawaiian perspective and 2,000 years of traditional knowledge behind that vantage point. This wealth of information details the necessary functions of the natural world as told through Pele’s genealogy.

“That is my passion. To make sure that this continues and to ask, ‘How is it that we can ensure that all of these things continue with or without geothermal?’ Can we have geothermal and make sure these things happen? Because they must happen.”

Nu’uiwa explained that in the Hawaiian way of thinking, the use of geothermal energy is not supported. This belief stems from the idea that as long as Pele’s back is hot and she is active, her energy should not be used or manipulated.

Wallace Ishibashi Jr., a business agent for the International Longshore & Warehouse Union; Michael Kaleikini, plant manager for Puna Geothermal Venture; and Richard Ha, president of Hamakua Springs Country Farms, offered alternative perspectives.

“There are two ways to look at this gift from Pele,” Ishibashi, Native Hawaiian said. “One: That it is a desecration to tap the geothermal power of Pele; or two: Accept it as a gift, a blessing from Pele to her children to help them overcome life’s adversities. The key is true benefits for the people.”

Ishibashi explained that Native Hawaiian laborers are suffering the highest rates of poverty in the islands. Their wages do not support their families’ bills due to the outstanding cost of coal- and oil-fired power and gasoline on the islands.

“Something has got to be done to help the people of Hawaii, to bring true savings to the ‘rubber slipper folks.’ We think that it’s the cost of living in Hawaii, but that’s not the cost of living in paradise, that’s the cost of living with oil,” he said.

Ha, Native Hawaiian, whose entire farm runs on hydropower, said his involvement in geothermal began in 2008 when his laborers could no longer afford to drive to work. At that time, Ha divided his farm into lease-holds for his workers and began to diversify his crops to create a local sustainable community.

He then began to research other alternative fuel sources and has found geothermal to be the most cost effective and environmentally safe. It also holds the greatest potential for large-scale production and becoming the base power for the islands, he believes.

“We need to advocate for geothermal energy as a right of the Native Hawaiian people. It’s here on the east side of Hawaii that we have the most poverty and the lowest median family income in the state. This is our chance to elevate our standard of living. Something’s got to be done to protect the people of Hawaii.”

At Puna Geothermal Venture, Kaleikini, Native Hawaiian, manages the operations of the 30-megawatt power plant that is contracted to provide approximately 20 percent of the Big Island’s electrical needs.

“It’s clean. It’s local. It’s here – it’s indigenous,” he said.

PGV, owned by parent company Ormat of Reno, Nev., has operated a closed geothermal system in the lower Puna region for 17 years. It now employs 30 full-time staff and contributes $3 million to the local economy. Royalties are also paid to the state due to the fact that the steam is considered a state-owned mineral.

The plant has six production wells that generate steam from the geothermal heat. This steam turns two turbines which power a generator. The additional unused heat during the first process is optimized through a carbon cycle through which pentane is used to generate additional power to turn a second turbine.

The energy produced from these processes then feeds into the grid.

Because the “brine” (hot water) that is generated from the process is returned directly to the injection wells, there is little or no escape of gas and it’s considered a closed system.

Kaleikini said the biggest source of pollution caused by geothermal production is the noise from the rotating machinery that operates continuously.

When PGV began production, many Puna residents reacted negatively to the potential impact that small amounts of escaping hydrogen sulfide might have on locals. This fear stemmed from a different type of geothermal process, an open system, in which gasses escape freely. Other protesters objected to the land development as well as the use of Pele’s energy.

Since that time, only three families have requested county funding for relocation.

The additional money that had been appropriated to assist other families that officials thought might request to relocate went unused and has been redirected to community projects.

Earlier this year, the Hawaiian senate established the Hawaii Geothermal Working Group to analyze the potential development of geothermal energy as the primary energy source to meet the base-load demand for electricity on the big island.

The group is currently researching and seeking input and scheduled to make recommendations in the first 20 days of the 2011 session. The findings of this report will be used to further the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative, which aims to use renewable energies to make up 70 percent of the state’s consumption by 2030.

According to Ishibashi, Ha and Kaleikini, the biggest setbacks to the conversion to geothermal are investors and funding to research new wells and build more facilities.

“We owe it to our children and grandchildren to do something now,” Kaleikini said. “Global warming is real, no more cheap oil is real.”

At the close of the session, a member of the audience, who had been apprehensive of geothermal use stood. She expressed her fear in attending the session due to the kapu (sacred/forbidden) topic of using Pele’s heat.

“It is very refreshing for me to see Native Hawaiians running this meeting. Now, I’m looking at [geothermal] as a way to say ‘okay, we know what we’re doing, we know how we’re going to do it and how it’s going to be beneficial to the island and our people.’”

For more information about geothermal energy on the Big Island of Hawaii visit www.punageothermalventure.com.