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OHA weighs geothermal partnership


Tribune-Herald staff writer

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs could be getting into the geothermal business.

OHA’s Board of Trustees today will discuss whether to partner with Honolulu-based Innovations Development Group as it seeks to win a contract for providing up to 50 megawatts of geothermal electricity to island residents.

That deal would come with an investment of $1.25 million in the new power plant, assuming that the Huena Power Consortium, set up by IDG to bid on the next geothermal contract with the Hawaii Electric Light Co., beats the competition. As a part owner, OHA would get a share of the revenue that could exceed 20 percent of its investment, which would help fund programs for Native Hawaiians, said Patricia Madina Talbert, a legal adviser to IDG.

That would be in addition to the 20 percent of geothermal royalties OHA already receives.

“They would be a partner in developing their own resource,” she said.

Madina Talbert said the trustees have shown support for the Hawaiian-owned company’s “Native-to-Native” model that is based around using natural resources to benefit indigenous populations.

Whether a final vote on the proposal will be held today remains to be seen.

The board has scheduled an executive session to discuss the matter with legal counsel. It may choose to make a decision afterward, said Garett Kamemoto, OHA spokesman.

Mililani Trask, a cultural adviser to IDG, said OHA makes a natural partner for the company.

“We are Hawaiians developing our land,” she said. “The (land) owner is Hawaiian. That’s why we asked OHA to join us.”

That land owner is the Kealoha Estate, which has offered 406 acres in Pohoiki for IDG to develop if it wins the contract.

Madina Talbert said the company is also considering other locations, but declined to elaborate.

A geothermal project owned and financed by Hawaiians might have seemed like a longshot when Puna Geothermal Venture, the state’s only existing geothermal plant, began operating about 20 years ago.

Many Hawaiians objected to the project on cultural grounds.

Trask was one of them.

She said she thought the development was being done the wrong way at the time, and threatened the ability of Hawaiians to gather plants in the area for spiritual purposes.

Trask has since become a supporter of geothermal if done in a way that she sees as sensitive to interests of indigenous people. She said she helped start IDG, which has two geothermal projects in New Zealand in partnership with Maori groups, over 10 years ago to support that cause.

“We developed a different business model,” Trask said. “One that interfaces with indigenous rights and puts indigenous people in the role of participating in development.

“If you don’t participate in development, you can’t protect cultural resources.”

Still, some Hawaiians see geothermal power as an affront to Pele.

Trask calls herself a “Pele practitioner,” and doesn’t see geothermal power as causing harm to the goddess.

“Tutu Pele is perfectly capable of defending herself and protecting her lands,” she said.

In addition, IDG also plans to set up a community trust and assist nearby farmers if it wins the contract, Trask said.

Though HELCO is looking to expand geothermal production by 50 mgw (PGV currently produces up to 38 mgw), it may split that up in two phases.

That means IDG, if it wins the contract, may build a 25 mgw plant to start, and double its size or build another plant later, Madina Talbert said.

A plant could cost between $4 million and $5 million for each megawatt produced, she said, meaning that a 50 mgw plant could cost over $250 million.

HELCO has set a deadline for bidders of April 30. A decision may take 120 days.

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