Harry Kim says he was looking forward to the quiet life — retiring and being a grandfather. The two-time Big Island mayor had left the county in the hands of his protege, Billy Kenoi.

But a renewed push to construct power plants along volcanic rifts brought the 72-year-old out of retirement.

“I’m in support of the development of geothermal,” Kim told Civil Beat. “But it must be right from the position of the people and the environment.”

At one time, there was intense interest in geothermal. But state plans were shelved after heated community opposition chased out one developer and prompted the state to abandon large-scale development plans in the 1990s.

But now the state and electric utilities are taking a hard second look at tapping the underground heat source to power not only the Big Island’s electricity needs, but the state’s, too.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie recently signed legislation that expedites geothermal development. And HECO’s plans to issue a request for proposals for 50 megawatts of geothermal energy for the Big Island by the end of this year. It’s already generating interest from numerous companies, including Puna Geothermal Venture, the state’s only sole geothermal company in the state, which is looking to expand production. Innovations Development Group is also vying for development rights. That company includes Mililani Trask, a well-known Native Hawaiian activist who in decades past was one of geothermal’s most vocal opponents.

Kenoi, who worked for Kim as his executive assistant, was sanguine about the news of his predecessor’s run when Civil Beat caught up with him at a recent unveiling of a biodiesel plant on the Big Island.

“All I can say is that I have nothing but love, aloha and respect for Harry Kim,” he said. “He was my football coach when I was eight years old. I look up to him like a second father. And his decision to run based on geothermal is a state issue and his disagreement is with, supposedly, the direction of the Department of Land and Natural Resources and the governor, as he’s stated.”

But for the loquacious, 43-year-old mayor, known for his humor and exuberant personality, it’s meant a redoubling of efforts to retain his seat.

Kenoi said he and his campaign have had to resort to throwing double shakas — not just the one.

He’s been a strong supporter of renewable energy on the Big Island.

“We have to continue to push for renewable energy,” he said. “We cannot continue to depend on fossil fuels. And we have to utilize the incredible assets that we have. Hawaii Island, Hawaii County, has a responsibility because we have such a vast array of renewable energy to continue to push forward in a collaborative way.”

A Moving Target

During the past few years, there’s been growing grass-roots support for geothermal development on the Big Island.

Trask’s backing was widely seen by people in the energy sector as a sign of a sea change in local attitudes toward geothermal, particularly in the Native Hawaiian community where there has been past opposition based on religious and cultural reasons.

The Geothermal Working Group, which included community leaders from the Big Island, including Richard Ha, owner of Hamakua Springs Country Farms, also released a report last year in strong support of moving aggressively ahead with geothermal. This includes plans to tap the resources on the Big Island and bring the energy to neighbor islands via undersea cables.

But the increased political jockeying around the issue of future development by the top mayoral candidates suggests that politicians are navigating an increasingly diverse landscape of public opinion. And while the race isn’t dividing along pro- and anti-geothermal factions, candidates are battling it out to show who is the best at making sure geothermal drilling and exploration is done in a pono way.

Kim Stirs

Perhaps in a sign of Kim coming out of retirement, Kim unexpectedly flew to Honolulu in May to testify in front of the state’s environmental council against Senate Bill 3003, which included exemptions from environmental reviews for geothermal exploration and the elimination of geothermal subzones.

But Kim said that the state needed to slow down and warned that drilling and exploration can entail serious environmental and safety risks.

“It’s no different than an oil well,” he told the council. “It is a money machine that people are coming in here to your jurisdiction to make money. If I sound scared, I guarantee you I am.”

The testimony appears to have swayed the council, who voted against the exemptions to environmental reviews — reversing a prior subcommittee vote.

It was a blow to the bill’s advocates who said the exemptions were an important step in reducing the financial risk for developers at at time when the state needs to be moving aggressively ahead in getting off of imported oil. Most other parts of the bill passed.

By contrast, Kenoi’s administration didn’t submit testimony on the matter to the Legislature, even though the law could have the largest implications for the Big Island, which sits on the state’s largest geothermal resource. Kenoi didn’t return a call for comment.

Kim told Civil Beat that while geothermal wasn’t the sole issue motivating him to run, it was the issue that propelled him into the race.

“I don’t think there is a single project or issue that I can think of that would entice me even to consider going back to an 80 hour work week because for many years I was looking forward to just being a grandparent and retirement,” he said. “But for me, geothermal was the final straw in regard to the principles of government, not the issue itself.”

Rising Star

Kenoi is seen as a rising star. When he was 38, he made Hawaii Business Magazine’s list of “25 People for the Next 25 Years:”

After nearly flunking high school and coming this close to jail time as a wayward teenager, Billy made the mother of all comebacks. He graduated from U.H. law school and became a big-shot public defender on Oahu.

The magazine says that in 2001, “Kim summoned Billy back home to serve as his executive assistant.”

“Billy’s always been really smart, but also very rascal,” Kim told the magazine. “He’s overcome a lot to get where he is.”

But now Kim’s run to oust Kenoi, who has looked up to Kim as a mentor, could be a blow to his career.

Kim could split the primary votes for Kenoi in a race that requires the winning candidate to get 50 percent, plus one, of the votes. Otherwise, the two top vote getters will face-off in the Nov. 6 general election.

Kim is a formidable opponent and won his 2004 primary with 61 percent of the vote, ending the race. His closest competitor, Dominic Yagong, chair of the county council who is also running in this year’s race, trailed far behind at 26 percent, according to campaign records.

Kim bristled at questions about what his run means for Kenoi or whether he was disappointed in any aspect of his leadership. Kim endorsed Kenoi in the 2008 election.

“I want you to listen to what I told you. It’s not about Kenoi or Yagong,” he said, adding that he would not answer questions rating the job performance of either of the candidates.

He said that he had recently seen Kenoi at a birthday party where they embraced.

“Don’t make this a personal, adversarial thing,” he said.

The Dark Horse

Kim’s warnings about the risks of drilling and the need to slow down development aren’t scoring any points with geothermal’s most staunch opponents, however.

The Pele Defense Fund, which led opposition to its development in the 1980s and 1990s, recently took to the streets to oppose geothermal. And it’s leader, Palipaku Dedman, didn’t have kind words for Kim.

“We are not endorsing Harry Kim. Harry Kim was part of allowing a lot of the expansion and permits to happen in the first place,” he told Civil Beat. “It’s like going before a judge and saying you’re sorry. He’s part of the problem and he’s going to have to live with it. We are not supporting him at all.”

Dedman said Yagong is the best candidate.

Yagong has carved out the most adversarial position toward geothermal development, though he didn’t answer Civil Beat’s questions about whether he outright opposed it.

He said that Big Island residents had yet to see any benefits from geothermal when it comes to lower electricity rates and that he doubted they would in the future. He said that solar energy should be a priority and that if the electric utility eased up restrictions on the amount of photovoltaics allowed onto the electric grid then it could eliminate the need for more geothermal.

Yagong said talk at the state level about bringing geothermal from the Big Island to other islands via undersea cables was upsetting people in the local community.

“All you are doing is bringing a lot of anxiety to a lot of people,” he said.

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