Geothermal meeting gets heated


By TOM CALLIS

Tribune-Herald staff writer

Geothermal wells tap into something much more than a renewable energy source, members of the Pele Defense Fund and other geothermal opponents told the Hawaii County Council on Tuesday evening.

They drill into the goddess Pele herself, a process that can also lead to the release of a “toxic soup” of chemicals from under the surface during leaks and blowouts, the activists said.

At the council meeting attended by over 300 people at the Pahoa High and Intermediate School, the group and other geothermal opponents called for better monitoring of Pahoa’s geothermal plant, protested past leaks, and urged the council not to allow more facilities to be built on the Big Island.

“We’re not getting a fair shake,” said Robert Petricci, who argued that money used on geothermal could be spent on solar power for residents and other forms of energy.

“To say that we have no other choice … is not a true statement.”

The council held the rare meeting at the school to hear concerns on geothermal power from those most affected by the issue, which has been gaining attention since the Hawaii Electric Light Co. announced earlier this year that it would like to more than double its use on the island.

And they got plenty of feedback.

Eighty-one people signed up to speak, with geothermal opponents, many from the Puna District, where the island’s only geothermal power plant is located, dominating the testimony.

Only six of those who signed up wrote that they planned to speak in support of geothermal power.

It took two hours of testimony before one of them made it to the microphone.

The first, Richard Ha, said the island needs to move away from oil-burning power plants to avoid steep increases in rates.

“The only way I can see that being done is through geothermal,” he said.

His comments only presented a brief break from the constant flow of geothermal opponents, who one after another, said that the risk posed by the power plants is too high. Many cited a blowout in 1991 that sent uncontrolled steam into the air.

Aurora Martinovich said her daughter had sores around her mouth and nose afterward.

“I thought it was clean and renewable and it just smelled bad,” she said, after listing chemicals contained in the magma-produced steam.

“We are breathing a soup of this.”

John Olson said he was across the street when the blowout happened.

“When it gets away it’s over,” he warned.

“One time is all you have to screw it up. One time.”

The 30-megawatt plant in the community, operated by Puna Geothermal Venture, went online in 1993.

Mike Kaleikini, plant manager, offered to give a presentation to the council on its safety features.

During an interview, he acknowledged that there is a risk of another blowout, but he emphasized that new safety controls have been put in place and he thinks it is safe for the community.

“No one I know of has become ill as a result of working at the plant,” he said.

Kaleikini said he could not comment on claims of health effects from the blowout.

The community of Pahoa hosts the Big Island’s only power plant that uses magma-produced steam to produce electricity.

The Pele Defense Fund also played a 30-minute video from 1989 arguing the religious case against geothermal energy.

Drilling, the video said, harms the goddess Pele and is an insult to Hawaiians who practice their traditional religion.

Some of the speakers agreed.

“The steam is her bloodline,” said Cy Bridges.

As a step toward expanding geothermal power, HELCO recently filed a letter with the state Public Utilities Commission asking it to open a docket that would allow the private utility to seek proposals for a new plant that could produce up to 50 megawatts.

It would likely be built on the west side, sometime between 2018 and 2023.

Patricia Talbert, attorney for Innovations Development Group, which wants to build the second plant, also joined others in criticizing past problems with the plant.

But Talbert also argued that geothermal can be good for the island if done right.

“We believe there is a better way,” she said.

Geothermal could provide the island with between 500 and 700 megawatts of power, the Geothermal Working Group concluded.

The island uses up to 185 megawatts of electricity.

The state has a mandate of 40 percent renewable energy by 2030. HELCO is at 36.7 percent.