Two decades ago, Mililani Trask aggressively fought geothermal development in the Big Island’s vast Puna district.

As part of the Pele Defense Fund, the attorney and sovereignty activist helped change the state’s environmental impact statement law to be sensitive to the host culture.

Today, the Pele Defense Fund is defunct, but Trask is once again heavily involved with geothermal.

Now, though, she wants to develop geothermal — on the Big Island as well as Maui.

Urging Change in State Policy

The difference between 20 years ago and today — a big difference — is that Trask recognizes the potential for geothermal energy to not only ween Hawaii off its near absolute dependence on imported fossil fuels, but also to be sensitive to Hawaiian culture.

And to make money.

If Trask’s wishes come true, geothermal will not only lead to the training and employment of local workers, but benefit other industries such as agriculture and food production — even steam baths for tourists (think Iceland or Japan). Picture renewable energy industrial parks built near geothermal drilling sites.

Trask’s views were shared as part of a two hour-plus presentation Thursday afternoon before lawmakers at the state Capitol. Trask works for Innovations Development Group, a Hawaii-based energy development company that has several projects in New Zealand. There, public-private partnerships benefit the Maori as well as the country.

IDG’s CEO is Patricia K. Brandt and its senior adviser is Robbie Lea Kapiolani Cabral; Trask is the group’s indigenous and community adviser.

The message from IDG to lawmakers was direct: change state policy to facilitate the development of geothermal.

Through its PowerPoint, IDG showed lawmakers how the state, as the trustee for state lands, would be paid millions of dollars annually for the lease of lands for drilling.

But IDG also wants to use revenues to benefit others such as charitable groups. Indeed, it believes the state has a fiduciary responsibility to work toward the benefit of both the native population and residents — making money but doing good.

On that point, Trask took the opportunity to ding the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative crafted under the Lingle administration as not being inclusive of groups like labor and agriculture.

A Human Rights Approach

Despite the protests, which often pitted Hawaiians against Hawaiians, geothermal has been in operation on the Big Island since 1993 and is helping to power the county.

What upset opponents of geothermal, especially supporters of Hawaiian culture and land rights, was that Hawaiians were not included in development discussions.

As state Sen. Mike Gabbard said to IDG at the informational briefing Thursday, proponents wanted to “drill into Pele’s breast.” Today, Pele is as nurturing as mother’s milk.

Infinite, too, as it comes from the heat of the earth’s core. One conservative estimate of its lifespan numbers in millennia.

The IDG model was inspired by the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, something Trask was involved in. In essence, the business model IDG envisions for geothermal is one grounded in human rights.

“Our business approach is culturally appropriate, environmentally sustainable, socially responsible and economically sensible,” said Trask.

Lawmakers Receptive

Trask and company were well received by legislators, although state Sen. Glenn Wakai observed that it seemed IDG was essentially making a sales pitch to the government.

IDG says the opportunities would not be limited to its business, however. The Capitol conference room was packed with other island energy businesses — including Kuokoa, the Richard Ha hui that wants to buy Hawaiian Electric — and they often nodded in agreement with IDG’s presentation.

The Legislature has long recognized the money-making potential of its land holdings. This session it passed Act 55, which establishes a Public Land Development Corporation to administer “an appropriate and culturally-sensitive” public land development program.

Geothermal energy lies beneath many of the lands controlled by the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands and the Department of Land and Natural Resources, primarily in the Puna-Volcano-Kau area on the Big Island and the eastern and southern slopes of Haleakala on Maui. IDG has met with DHHL, DLNR and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

The lands are not the fertile regions sought by plantations. Indeed, ceded lands include among the most hot and arid regions in the state — an ironic twist. They include parts of Waianae and Waimanalo on Oahu, too, though geothermal development there would produce far lower levels of energy than on Maui and the Big Island.

There are challenges to IDG’s “geothermal for the people” pitch.

For one, Hawaiian Electric Industries controls the state’s electrical grid (except on Kauai) and transmits the power. It has two requests for proposals out on both Maui and the Big Island for geothermal projects, though for only 50 megawatts.

(Hawaiian Electric Co’s corporate spokesman Peter Rosegg was in attendance for the IDG presentation but stayed mum.)

Geothermal is also risky, with IDG saying 80 percent of projects come up dry.

There’s also the unpredictability of Tutu Pele.

Geothermal is not a new idea, but it’s time may finally have come.

Amazing to think, then, that King Kalakaua actually visited Thomas Edison in New York City in 1881 to talk about geothermal in Hawaii. Only parts of lower Broadway were lit at the time.

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