A revival of interest in geothermal energy brought key players to Waimanalo on Saturday to address the heavily Native Hawaiian community on the benefits of the renewable energy source.

Business plans were pitched as speakers warned of a looming energy crisis due to the state’s 90 percent dependency on imported fossil fuels for its energy needs.

Why Waimanalo? Local residents are sitting on a potential hot spot for development.

It was an unorthodox assortment of speakers that gathered at Bellow’s Air Force Base — people who haven’t always gotten along.

There was Scott Seu from Hawaiian Electric Co., and Richard Ha and Ted Peck of Kuokoa, the company plotting to take over HECO. There was Mililani Trask, who led protests back in the 1980s on the Big Island that chased out one geothermal company and caused a chilling effect on future development for the next 20 years. She’s now working to develop the resource. And then there was Mike Kaleikini from Puna Geothermal Venture, the only company that managed to get a stake in the ground in the midst of the local uproar.

Sen. Mike Gabbard, the always good-spirited chair of the Senate Energy and Environment Committee, capped off the event, wrapping it up with an enthusiastic and conciliatory tone.

The 1980s and ’90s were colored by clashes between opponents and supporters of geothermal on the Big Island, where the island’s active volcanos make it a ripe region for development. But it’s a new day, with opponents growing quiet.

Today’s battles involve not whether geothermal should be developed, but who is going to develop it, who is going to profit from it, and when will it move forward.

Hawaiian Electric, has been slow to act, chastened by the trials of the past where millions of dollars were invested in studies and pre-development of geothermal, and millions of dollars were lost. But as a bottom-up movement to develop the energy source gains momentum, the state’s major electric utility has begun to revisit the option, gathering information from companies, members of the local community and land owners interested in geothermal.

When there will be any significant commitment on the part of the utility, in the form of a formal request for proposals, remains to be seen.

Seu, who is vice president of energy resources for HECO, told Civil Beat that he didn’t know when an RFP may go out.

With the islands sitting on enough of the resource to potentially power the entire state, some say the utility isn’t moving fast enough to encourage geothermal development in the face of rising oil prices that pose a threat to the state’s economy. Enter Kuokoa.

Peck, who led the state’s energy department, stepped down from his position in January, and announced that he was joining newly formed Kuokoa, with the goal of taking over the publicly traded utility that serves Oahu, the Big Island and Maui County.

Kuokoa’s plan, which Peck pitched to a half-full auditorium, includes a major role for geothermal, bringing the energy from the Big Island to Oahu, and possibly Maui, via undersea cables. Such was the plan 30 years ago.

Peck said that Kuokoa would not only bring much cheaper electricity rates to local residents and move the state much faster off of fossil fuels, but it would also provide residents free and secure wireless internet via undersea cables that would transform the state into a single electric grid. Currently, the state’s electric grids are isolated to each island.

The company also wants to take the publicly traded HECO private, which it says will allow for greater flexibility in transitioning to clean energy. Peck said Kuokoa would retire the oil-fired generators, in which billions have been invested, and absorb the loss.

Against the backdrop of the battle between Hawaiian Electric and Kuokoa, there are a number of geothermal companies wrangling for the chance to develop the resource, and the Big Island is not the only island that they’re looking to. Maui and Oahu, including Waimanalo, where a low-temperature site is believed to exist, are also being explored.

Puna Geothermal would like to expand on the Big Island, and on Maui it’s planning test drilling on the Ulupalakua Ranch. The company currently produces 30 megawatts of geothermal energy in the Puna district and is awaiting approval from state regulators to expand by 8 megawatts.

Innovations Development Group, for which Trask serves as a cultural adviser, is a company comprised of Native Hawaiians who are developing geothermal in New Zealand, in native Maori communities. They tout their native-to-native protocol, and say that they are well positioned to develop the resource in culturally appropriate ways.

But even among Native Hawaiians a dispute has arisen over who might profit from millions of dollars in royalties from the mineral rights of Hawaiian home lands. The Department of Hawaiian Homelands recently argued that they hold the mineral rights, rather than the state, a dispute that could lead to a lengthy court battle if not resolved, prolonging geothermal development on certain lands. Waimanalo’s potential geothermal site sits on Hawaiian home lands.

How, when and where geothermal develops in Hawaii remains to be seen, but based on scattered applause from the audience in response to Trask, finding support may no longer be an obstacle.

Gabbard recounted a recent visit from a Native Hawaiian who discussed reasons for past community opposition, but who now supported geothermal.

“The thing that pissed us off the most is [the companies] didn’t sit down with the local community and talk story,” he told Gabbard. “They were drilling into Madame Pele’s breast and didn’t have the courtesy to sit down with us.”

Gabbard said that despite the mistakes of the past, there was no reason that geothermal development couldn’t be done differently now – “in a pono way.”

Mililani Trask talks the fight against geothermal development on the Big Island 30 years ago, and why it should now be expanded to power the state’s electricity needs.

Discussion: Do you think geothermal development in Hawaii should go forward soon?

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