POHOIKI, Hawaii Island – For the first time in 25 years, geothermal energy in volcano country is not powering any Big Island homes or businesses – and seemingly no one has noticed.

Electrical customers have not suffered a single blackout or been asked to conserve energy as a result of the Kilauea eruption having forced the privately owned Puna Geothermal Venture to close unexpectedly two months ago, said Jay Ignacio, Hawaii Electric Light Co. president.

HELCO powers the island’s grid using a mix of electricity it generates and also buys from PGV along with other independent producers.

“We still have adequate margins (to meet the island’s power demands),” Ignacio said of HELCO’s ability to supply 242 megawatts of “firm” electricity to an islandwide grid currently consuming 170 MW.

Here’s how the Puna Geothermal Venture plant appeared from the air June 18. It has sustained millions of dollars worth of damage from the lava flow. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

And those margins will grow.

A private 21.5 MW Pepeekeo biomass plant is scheduled to open late this year, Ignacio said.

Also, HELCO is reviewing proposals it solicited for 20 megawatts of solar or wind generation, and plans to increase the capacity of its Hilo hydroelectric plant by 0.5 MW, Ignacio said.

A single megawatt of electricity can power 200 to 300 Big Island homes, said Kevin Waltjen, HELCO general manager.

The pending interconnection of private solar generation will add still more capacity to the grid, the state Public Utilities Commission announced last month.

“Approximately 2.5 MW of distributed energy projects are ready for final processing on Hawaii Island,” the regulatory agency said in announcing it has asked Hawaiian Electric Companies, which owns HELCO, to work with Hawaii Energy to “develop a series of rapid response actions to address the loss of renewable generation” from PGV.

HELCO President Jay Ignacio says the utility has enough reserve capacity to offset the loss of Puna Geothermal Venture. Jason Armstrong/Civil Beat

“In the near-term, electricity formerly provided by PGV will be generated mostly by burning fossil fuels, increasing air pollution and raising electricity prices for customers,” the PUC said.

Last year, 31 percent of the island’s power came from PGV’s 38-megawatt plant, said Mike Kaleikini, the company’s senior director, Hawaii affairs.

“That’s a big hit to the grid and to the island,” Kaleikini said of losing Hawaii’s only geothermal power plant, which opened in 1993.

But HELCO has offset that loss.

Plants in Hilo and Honokaa are now running longer, while a lesser-used Keaau plant also is generating more output, Ignacio said.

The transition away from lower-cost geothermal will add $1.70 to the typical monthly residential bill, he said.

‘We’re Fine Without It’

The transition has also made it clear that Big Island customers no longer have to have geothermal power.

“Obviously it was not essential because we’re fine without it,” said state Sen. Russell Ruderman, whose decades-long opposition to geothermal has earned him two arrests.

PGV’s operations have caused well blowouts, released deadly hydrogen sulfide (but not nearly as much as the volcano is producing) and offended some Native Hawaiian practitioners believing it’s sacrilegious to Madame Pele, the Hawaiian fire goddess.

This private 21.5-megawatt biomass power plant being built in Pepeekeo is expected to open by year’s end, helping to compensate for the closure of the PGV plant. Jason Armstrong/Civil Beat

Under its PGV-funded relocation program, Hawaii County has bought 20 homes from people who refused to live near the plant, according to the county’s Planning Department. Three purchased in 2016 and 2017 were being readied for public auction when lava destroyed them, according to the department.

Asked if PGV’s power was essential to the island’s grid, Ignacio said a better description is “preferable” because it assisted with HELCO’s planned maintenance of its own facilities, while also adding to the island’s grid security.

The plant was “really necessary” when it opened, he said of conditions in the early 1990s before HELCO expanded its Keahole plant to 58 MW and a private 60-megawatt plant opened near Honokaa, creating the island’s two largest power generators.

The ongoing Kilauea eruption has created too much risk and uncertainty to justify spending the money needed to reopen PGV, said Ruderman.

“It’s my belief that it’s the end of geothermal development in Hawaii,” Ruderman said. “The problem with geothermal is not political. It’s geological, and we’ve seen that illustrated in the most dramatic fashion.”

‘Totally Committed’ To Reopening

PGV and parent company Ormat are “totally committed” to reopening the plant, but it’s still not possible to determine if that can be accomplished, how long repairs could take or the price tag, Kaleikini said.

“We don’t have any current plans right now with the exception of monitoring the flow and the eruption,” he said. “It’s very tough.”

Lava pouring from a nearby fissure has isolated the plant and covered three wells, causing millions of dollars worth of damage.

Operator Jonathan Gangano monitors the grid at HELCO’s Hilo control center. Courtesy of HELCO

The plant cost $110 million to build before undergoing expansions at additional expense, he said. Dangerous conditions continue to prevent a thorough inspection of the plant about five miles from Pahoa, he said.

Ormat Technologies Inc., which runs geothermal plants in Central America, Africa and Asia, has up to $100 million in property and business-interruption insurance coverage, the company said in a May 31 statement.

Although PGV has explored tapping a geothermal resource in West Hawaii, it’s not actively pursuing that or looking for alternative sites, Kaleikini said.

PGV will keep each of its 30 full-time workers employed for at least a year, he said, noting many are volunteering at the various relief centers set up to help disaster victims.

PGV’s Mike Kaleikini. Courtesy of Mike Kaleikini

“We’re really committed to Hawaii,” Kaleikini said.

The eruption has destroyed 765 power poles and caused HELCO to lose 935 customers, but the island’s peak demand has dipped just 10 MW, said the utility’s Waltjen.

Geothermal energy had been HELCO’s largest source of renewable energy, yet its loss has not prevented the utility from meeting the state’s mandate for renewable generation.

Before the eruption started May 3, HELCO was the statewide leader in supplying renewable energy, with 57 percent of its electricity generated from sources that included wind, solar and hydro, Ignacio said. The loss of PGV has dropped use of renewables to 37 percent, but that number will climb to 47 percent once the private Hu Honua Bioenergy plant comes online later this year, he said.

The state’s mandate is 30 percent by 2020 and a full 100 percent renewable production by 2045.

“We will meet it,” Waltjen said.

Although HELCO has no current plans to build a new plant, it is reviewing offers to supply the company with 20 MW of solar or wind energy, Ignacio said.

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