By Anu Yagi
In the early 1990s, anti-geothermal graffiti streaked the streets near a Puna District power plant: stylized skulls, crossbones and the characters of the compound H²S (hydrogen sulfide). At the time, residents there were experiencing nasal passage cysts, double menstrual cycles, nausea, high fevers, abdominal pain, extreme lethargy and even miscarriages. All signs pointed hydrogen sulfide as the culprit.
A hazardous byproduct of mismanaged geothermal energy, hydrogen sulfide is a broad-spectrum toxin which primarily affects the central nervous system, prevents cellular respiration and is as toxic as hydrogen cyanide. Though it was then argued that naturally occurring volcanic emissions trumped any hazardous byproduct from the geothermal wells, the Environmental Protection Agency concluded that well releases were a significant source of hydrogen sulfide.
Then-Hawaii County Civil Defense administrator Harry Kim, in an interview with the Houston Chronicle, was livid. “When I leave this job, the lowest low will be our failure to protect the people with regard to geothermal,” he said. “This was a life-threatening situation, not an inconvenience.”
The geothermal wells raised the ire of Native Hawaiian groups who viewed the drilling for energy held deep underground as an affront to their culture and fire goddess Pele.
Internationally renowned human and Hawaiian rights activist Mililani Trask was at the forefront of the anti-geothermal protests at that time. Though she reflects on early efforts as “cheap and dirty technology,” Trask believes differently now. Today she’s the indigenous and cultural adviser to Innovations Development Group (IDG), a firm that seeks to expand geothermal development in Hawaii with a “Native-to-Native (N2N)” business development model focused on community benefit.
On July 20, the all Native Hawaiian-owned company held a public meeting at Pukalani’s Mayor Hannibal Tavares Community Center, to “share their philosophy and get feedback from the community.”
While the Big Island’s been the tortured guinea pig for geothermal technology in Hawaii, the island of Maui is the next hotspot on the horizon. But IDG insists that technological advances have made geothermal a clean, safe and viable solution to energy production.
Hawaii is the most fossil fuel-dependent state in the union, importing more than 90 percent of its energy. Not only could geothermal be a gargantuan factor in establishing Hawaii’s self reliance, but the beneficial byproducts can be economy boosters, too. Some uses for geothermal’s steam byproduct include produce and lumber drying, textile dying, greenhouse farming, aquaculture, bronze-casting, fruit fly eradication, cement formulization, distillation, polystyrene expansion, and healing spas.
Geothermal drilling began in Hawaii in 1978 with the Hawaii Geothermal Resources Assessment Program and its identification of 20 potential resource sites across the state. The first experimental well was drilled in the Kilauea East Rift Zone, becoming operational in 1982. Producing just three-megawatts worth of power, the state-run facility outlived its two-year demonstration lifetime and closed in 1989.
Within a year of the state’s test site closure, the first commercial wells, at the hand of Puna Geothermal Venture (PGV), had been drilled in an area neighboring the residences of Leilani Estates. Then in the summer of 1991, the PVG’s KS-8 well experienced a massive blowout lasting 31 hours—one of 19 releases from PGV wells between 1991 and 1993—as reported by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1996.
Ormat Technologies, a Reno-based company that acquired PVG in 2004, announced this May that it wants to lease 8,000 acres of Ulupalakua Ranch land for geothermal development.
“We’re all friends now,” Trask said of the IDG and the Puna community’s relationship with PVG. And in the face of fiscal and energy crises worldwide, they say cultural contentions can be ameliorated with planning that integrates the interests of all stakeholders (mineral resources are a publicly owned asset in Hawaii).
Trask said that from the group’s global studies, “research results were disappointing.” She added that “sources of renewable energy were not being developed because of strife between natives and developers… Our basic goal is to ensure our people have a say in not only consultation, but implementation.”
This means that the currently mandated 10 percent royalty paid (on gross earnings) to the state by existing energy developers should be just the beginning.
In a slideshow pie chart presented at the Pukalani meeting, IDG outlined the basics of what a 50-megawatt plant’s cashflow might be. With their model, 54 percent would go to operating costs, debt service and taxes; 28 percent would cover the cost of capital and developer’s equity; 10 percent goes for state royalties; six percent goes to the landowner; and the remaining two percent—estimated at $1.25 million per annum, totalling $65 million over a 50-year lease—goes into a community trust.
“At the end of the lease,” Trask said, “the assets transfer to the state, which is how you create a portfolio for public utility.”
The clout IDG touts includes groundbreaking geothermal projects in New Zealand, which they describe as the world’s first geothermal trade deal that prioritizes aboriginal host cultures.
The group says their business dealings began in New Zealand 12 years ago, at the invitation of the government, and—because of their unique “N2N” model—the company won an international bid to leverage natural resources between investment partners and the indigenous community.
One deal IDG recently signed is with Eastland Group to develop 170 hectares within a Maori trust block in Kawerau, a town near the Bay of Plenty on North Island. The site’s been named “Te Ahi O Maui” (roughly, “the fire of Maui”), which references the oral tradition of the high chief Ngatoroirangi, who is fabled to have piloted the Te Arawa waka to Aotearoa.
The legend of Ngatoroirangi (prefaced by the cross-cultural tale of the demigod Maui—who tried to steal secrets from the goddess of fire, and in dodging her retribution created volcanic chains) says that in order for the chief to claim his new found lands, he had to be the first to ascend a frigid summit. On his frozen deathbed, Ngatoroirangi called to his sisters Kuiwai and Haungaroa in Hawaikii, who sent—via underground flame channels—the fire demons Te Pupu and Te Hoata, to warm him.
This beloved Maori myth has long been the pith of the peoples’ prehistoric understanding of their geothermal gift—and IDG says those underground channels connecting Hawaii and New Zealand are now supported by science.
The group aims to further connect the isles by bringing home what they’ve learned—and taught—overseas, to tap into an abundance of energy in an environmentally conscientious manner that’s “in concert with human rights.”
“We happen to be the wealthiest state in the union when it comes to natural resources,” Trask said with a giddy grin, “but we haven’t known it to be until now.”
Illustration by Scrappers