Newly reissued county permits and the mayor’s recent remarks have left Big Island community members wondering what’s next.

Hawaii County’s push to jumpstart a hydrogen economy on the Big Island is raising questions about what role, if any, Hu Honua might play in getting that industry off the ground.

The idled tree-burning power plant, also known as Honua Ola Bioenergy, has been coming back into compliance with more than dozen county permits even after the state Supreme Court rejected its proposal to sell power to Hawaiian Electric.

Meanwhile, Mayor Mitch Roth has been heralding the commitment to hydrogen in various public forums as the county seeks clean energy proposals from developers who could receive contracts by the end of this year.

The Hu Honua biomass plant in Pepeekeo has been coming back into compliance with county permits. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

Hu Honua has long sought to burn eucalyptus trees and turn the steam into power for Hawaiian Electric. But the plant, located 10 miles north of Hilo, hit a major roadblock in March when the Hawaii Supreme Court upheld a decision by the Public Utilities Commission to deny Hu Honua a license to operate.

The commission found Hu Honua’s greenhouse gas emissions and high electric rates for consumers would not serve the public interest, among other things. The high court concurred.

But recent remarks by Roth combined with Hawaii County releasing several key permits to Hu Honua, related to fire suppression and grading, have raised speculation that the troubled biomass plant may be down but not out, and could play a role in creating electricity for hydrogen energy.

Roth is a big proponent of producing hydrogen on the Big Island to meet the county’s clean energy goals. He talks it up frequently at town hall meetings and championed a non-binding resolution that the Hawaii County Council passed in May affirming the county’s commitment to hydrogen exploration, a move questioned by several council members and critics including the Sierra Club.

The county is currently seeking proposals from energy companies and community members for clean energy solutions to steer the island toward net-zero emissions and a post-carbon economy. Proposals that would move the Big Island toward a hydrogen-based economy will be prioritized, something the Biden administration is pushing for nationally while making significant grant money available to counties.

Hawaii County Mayor Mitch Roth is a big supporter of hydrogen energy. (Courtesy: Tracey Niimi)

After the Roth administration vets the responses, it expects to award contracts for developing hydrogen infrastructure through a competitive bidding process later this year.

The county received a U.S. Department of Energy grant in 2020 to support a five-year mentoring relationship among Namie, Japan, Lancaster, California, and the Big Island to replace oil and fossil fuel with hydrogen-based fuel cells to reach carbon neutrality by 2035, Roth said in his State of the County speech this year.

“With this grant, we will be part of a team that will pilot hydrogen transformation for not only Hawaii but the country,” he said.

So how might Hu Honua factor into the island’s hydrogen equation? It’s hard to know at this point. Warren Lee, Hu Honua’s president, did not respond to a request for comment.

Although it was denied permission to sell power to Hawaiian Electric, the company is still working on coming into compliance with its Hawaii County permits. Last fall, the Department of Public Works issued a notice of violation that found numerous structures out of compliance with permits or behind on building inspections.

Of the 14 permits that Hu Honua was violating, six have been reinstated and eight others are in the process of being reviewed for compliance, Public Works Director Steve Pause said Monday.

Asked why Hu Honua would need current permits if it’s not planning to operate, Pause said he has no idea and that he has had no recent communication with the company.

Honokaa resident David Hunt, a member of the volunteer Clean Power Task Force, said he suspects Hu Honua is getting its permits in order because the company may want to play a role in whatever the island’s hydrogen future may be.

“It’s obvious that Hu Honua wants to operate to avoid an investor lawsuit, to try to get a return on investment, and most importantly to make money,” Hunt said by email.

Council member Heather Kimball said while the Hu Honua plant could be retrofitted to produce hydrogen, she doesn’t see it happening.

“I think there are both regulatory and financial hurdles that are likely insurmountable, not to mention the community opposition to the project,” Kimball said by email.

It’s also possible that Hu Honua may make another attempt at selling energy to Hawaiian Electric.

Although the high court upheld the PUC’s rejection of Hu Honua, there’s nothing stopping the company from retooling its proposal and submitting a bid to Hawaiian Electric, which expects to make final selections in its latest round of requests for proposals for renewable energy projects in October, according to Hawaiian Electric spokesman Darren Pai.

“Hu Honua is legally allowed to rebid. If it does and is selected, Hawaiian Electric would need to execute a new power purchase agreement, which would be subject to review and approval by the PUC,” Pai said by email.

Hydrogen renewable energy production pipeline - hydrogen gas for clean electricity solar and windturbine facility.
Community members question whether hydrogen energy will make its way to the Big Island one day. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Last month during a Renew Rebuild Hawaii forum, Roth suggested Hu Honua could be part of the island’s energy portfolio with certain conditions.

“If it’s net zero, if it’s going to be a cleaner energy and it’s going to help with that, then we’re all for it,” Roth said.

Roth’s support for a hydrogen-based economy has received pushback from some community members, most recently over the seeming lack of transparency.

In May, Roth had the County Council vote on the hydrogen resolution without it having passed through council committees first and with minimal notice.

Council member Rebecca Villegas told the Hawaii Tribune-Herald that she was uncomfortable with the sense of urgency the council was expected to vote on the resolution. Cindy Evans, another council member, told the paper it was “very strange” that members didn’t receive the measure weeks in advance.

The Sierra Club of Hawaii sent a letter to the U.S. Energy Secretary complaining about the lack of transparency. The group noted that the hydrogen resolution was not formally submitted to the council and the public until a day before the public hearing and vote.

This is in line with concerns raised by community and environmental groups in other jurisdictions over lack of community involvement with the Energy Department’s $8 billion program to build hydrogen hubs across the country, a program for which Hawaii has applied, according to the Sierra Club.

In a May 4 letter, some 30 groups urged U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm to improve transparency standards and meaningful community engagement because, to date, the process has been clouded in secrecy that erodes public trust.

Help power our public service journalism

As a local newsroom, Civil Beat has a unique public service role in times of crisis.

That’s why we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content, so we can get vital information out to everyone, from all communities.

We are deploying a significant amount of our resources to covering the Maui fires, and your support ensures that we can pivot when these types of emergencies arise.

Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help power our nonprofit newsroom.

About the Author