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Abercrombie: Embrace geothermal energy

Gov. Neil Abercrombie said Tuesday morning he hopes to see Hawaii Island residents end the debate and embrace geothermal energy as an important resource for the state’s future energy needs.

“I realize that there’s been discussion and interest and varying views, but with respect to the utilization (of geothermal), I hope that conversation can come to a quick conclusion,” he said.

The governor made the comments during a ceremony at the Hilo Yacht Club as he prepared to sign Senate Bill 2953 into law, guaranteeing 100 percent of all royalties from the use of geothermal resources on Hawaiian Home Lands would be paid to the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.

“I hope this will act as an incentive and as an urging, to the (Public Utilities Commission) and to public opinion on the opportunity to move forward on the incredible geothermal resources that exist here on the Big Island,” Abercrombie said. “All over the world … where there are geothermal resources, they are being explored to the maximum. They are being utilized to the maximum. …

“If there is anything on Earth, or in Earth, that says to us as a species, as stewards of this planet, that here is a resource for your utilization and for your proper regard, and to be a steward of, it’s geothermal. And the Big Island could not be better situated for it.”

Abercrombie argued that geothermal’s potential is nearly limitless, and to ignore that would set back efforts to find alternative energy sources.

“This is a resource for the 21st Century in terms of alternative and renewable energy that probably is inexhaustible, and probably bodes as well as anything on the face of the earth to move us away from oil dependency and carbon-based dependency,” he said.

Hawaii Electric Light Co. is working to begin a geothermal power project that would generate up to an additional 50 megawatts on Hawaii Island. The additional energy would help the utility replace existing fossil-fuel-fired power plants.

The 38-megawatt Puna Geothermal Venture plant near Pohoiki is the only currently existing source of geothermal power in the state. The plant has met with opposition through the years from various neighbors and community organizations who fear the potential for health risks to the surrounding population has not been taken into full consideration by regulators.

A September 2013 joint fact-finding study group authorized by Mayor Billy Kenoi found that while the process of drilling for and harnessing geothermal energy does have the potential for health risks, there wasn’t enough data to assess whether PGV has had or is capable of having any measurable impact on the health of residents in lower Puna. The group’s final report recommended further study and a full health assessment.

“Risks from geothermal energy production in Lower Puna exist,” the report reads. “The actual extent and impacts of those risks remains unresolved. What is known is that hazardous chemicals are brought up by PGV. PGV adds industrial chemicals to the mix in the process and then sends the composite fluid back down. However, fluids inevitably escape to air, water, or at surface level. Harmful effects can only be understood through better monitoring and reliable health data.”

In May, the Environmental Protection Agency cited PGV for 14 alleged Clean Air Act violations. Eleven of the violations were historical and had been corrected, according to an EPA report. It also noted, however, ongoing failures regarding preventative maintenance and monitoring.

In a letter to PGV, the EPA maintained the facility is in general “both well- and safely operated,” while also calling attention to failures to follow maintenance schedules and tests of geothermal wells.

In a controversial move, Abercrombie signed in 2012 a bill doing away with geothermal subzones, opening the door for developers to locate production wells on Hawaii Island with less county input, critics say. Since then, bills seeking to repeal that decision have failed to garner enough support from legislators.

Email Colin M. Stewart at cstewart@hawaiitribune-herald.com.