Environmental exemptions for geothermal energy near final approval

Published On: May 03 2012 07:29:14 PM HST   Updated On: May 04 2012 07:28:36 AM HST

Unlike wind or solar, geothermal energy located deep below the earth's surface is always on.

But companies will often shy away from exploring new geothermal sites in Hawaii because of the state's strict environmental regulations, which cost both time and money.

On Thursday, a subcommittee of the state Environmental Council heard from potential geothermal developers about why the State Land Department should be allowed to waive certain environmental regulations.

"The cost and timelines of the current rules make it restrictive to explore in this state," said Bill Sherman, land manager for Ormat Technolgies, a Nevada based company that owns the 30 megawatt geothermal plant in Puna on the Big Island.

After hearing testimony, the seven member subcommittee approved three environmental exemptions for geothermal exploration. They include non-invasive testing and analysis, the issuance of leases on state or reserved lands, and the drilling of exploration wells.

If approved by the full 15-member Environmental Council May 17, the exemptions would allow the State Land Department to drop costly environmental assessments from geothermal exploration projects.

"This simply gives us the opportunity to point out an exemption for the environmental processes," said State Land Director William Aila. "There's still all of the other state, federal and county processes that have to be complied with."

The 30-megawattt Puna Geothermal Venture plant already produces 20 percent of the Big Island's energy needs. Allowing exploration wells to be dug more quickly and cheaply could lead to the construction of more plants.

Ormat is exploring the construction of a 50-megawatt geothermal plant on Ulupalakua Ranch in southern Maui. Meanwhile, Hawaii Electric Light Company opened a docket with the Public Utilities Commission May 1, asking for proposals to build a new 50-megawatt geothermal plant on the Big Island.

In his State of the State speech in January, Gov. Neil Abercrombie lobbied for more renewable energy output and mentioned the Big Island by name.

"That's really in response to the demand that's coming from the community on Hawaii Island," said Aila. "They're paying some of the highest prices for electricity in the state."

However, opposition to the geothermal industry on the Big Island continues to grow louder, where critics blame a variety of health problems on the Ormat plant in Puna.

Gary Hooser, an ex-officio member of the Environmental Council and director of the Office of Environmental Quality Control, believes geothermal technology doesn't harm human health, even though he voted against the exemption for exploratory wells.

"I think if done properly, like most things, geothermal can be perfectly safe," said Hooser. "We need to explore all these alternatives to renewable energy."

Longtime native Hawaiian activist Mililani Trask is currently representing Innovations Development Group, Inc., a company which hopes to dig geothermal exploration wells on the Big Island.

Although members of The Pele Defense Fund have begun speaking out against the interference geothermal plants could pose to native Hawaiian Pele practitioners, Trask says those concerns are overblown. She points to a 1995 decision by the Hawaii Supreme Court that affirmed access rights of native Hawaiians.

"Since that time and until the very present moment, there hasn't been a single case of a single Hawaiian prevented from worshiping tutu Pele because of a geothermal plant in Puna," said Trask. "It just hasn't happened. It's a non-issue."


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