The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Energy 202: Kilauea's eruption reignites debate over Hawaii's geothermal plant

Placeholder while article actions load


The only geothermal plant on Hawaii’s Big Island has been closed for more than six weeks because of the Kilauea volcano's eruptions. But a faction of local residents who believe that tapping the volcano for energy carries serious health and environmental risks -- and is an affront to Hawaiian values -- want it to stay closed for good.

The plant, Puna Geothermal Venture, began commercial operation 25 years ago despite objections from locals who worried the release of geothermal fluid, including hydrogen sulfide, endangered residents. Some members of the Puna community, including native Hawaiians, also say that geothermal development would subvert their worship of the volcano goddess Pele. Now, the closure of the plant has given new life to their objections.

The growing opposition is also a sign of the hurdles the Hawaiian government will face from its own people as it moves toward 100 percent renewable energy by 2045, one of the climate-related objectives Gov. David Ige (D) enacted in 2015, along with the goal of carbon neutrality by the same year enacted this month. Renewables promise to lower energy prices for Hawaii, which the Energy Information Administration reported in February has the highest residential electricity prices in the nation.

State Sen. Russell Ruderman, a Democrat who represents Puna, said he has been protesting geothermal energy for about 30 years. He described what he called a “triple whammy” of issues with PGV: the toxicity of the geothermal steam, the geologic instability of the area where the plant resides and the proximity to residents of the area. 

“Those three things combined cause unavoidable problems no matter what your politics are about it,” Ruderman said.

After the Kilauea eruptions began May 3, lava began to encroach on PGV’s facility, and the same geologic force providing electricity to the island forced the plant to shut down. But Michael Kaleikini, senior director of Hawaii affairs for PGV's parent company, Nevada-based Ormat Technologies, said most of the facility is intact.

And proponents of the plant are optimistic it can and will reopen. “If the eruptions were to stop today, we definitely would be looking at making preparations for restarting our plant,” Kaleikini told The Energy 202, noting Ormat has said it’s “committed” to the facility. “We don’t know when it’s going to stop. It’s premature [to decide] while the eruption is going on."

Weeks after it first erupted on May 3, Kilauea’s dramatic volcano activity continued to threaten homes, with lava and dangerous gases. (Video: Taylor Turner/The Washington Post)

However, Ruderman said just the images of the plant, which is surrounded by lava, illustrate his concerns. “Even if you don’t know anything more than that, it’s obviously not the place to put any critical infrastructure,” he said.

He and others who have lived in the area described experiences over the years, before the Kilauea eruptions, when the gases released from plant operations made them sick. He said a major blowout from one of the plant’s wells in 1991 led to uncontrolled release of the steam and hydrogen sulfide that naturally occurs in the ground.

“We could hear it and we could smell it,” he said. “I know at least a dozen people who were knocked unconscious or lost their ability to breathe normally for weeks or months.”

But Kaleikini said there has been “exactly zero” emissions of hydrogen sulfide from the plant during the Kilauea eruptions. 

Kaleikini acknowledged the outcry from community members about health concerns related to the plant, but said PGV hasn’t had an uncontrolled release of geothermal fluid since the 1991 blowout. He said people often refer to that event in criticizing PGV, but insisted it had since gone through a strict review and that six or seven wells had been successfully drilled without any uncontrolled emissions.

Robert Petricci, who moved in 1981 to Leilani Estates, near where the current volcanic activity is centered, was around for that -- and is an outspoken advocate of shuttering the plant.

He said his unease with geothermal began with an experimental plant that had been built on the island. He was bothered by the noise from the plant as well as from the release of toxic gases that he said made him sick. When others in the community also started to feel ill, he said many of them wrote letters to the editors in newspapers to express apprehension about geothermal development. It was just the start of what would become decades of activism for Petricci, who founded the Puna Pono Alliance watchdog group.

“That was the beginning of the so called anti-geothermal movement, but what it really was was every person who lived around that power plant was sick,” he said. “I don't know that I would call that geothermal activism, I was calling it self-defense.”

Beyond the environmental concerns, some people on the island -- including native Hawaiians -- believe geothermal development undermines their worship of Pele, a deity and the volcano goddess.

Kū Kahakalau, an educator and Hawaiian language teacher, explained Pele is one of multiple deities Hawaiians worship, but that she is “the most alive, most active, the one they can see and smell.” Kahakalau, who also has a doctorate in indigenous education, explained that Pele means lava, and one of the physical forms she takes is in the lava and volcano.

She said many Hawaiians and those who worship Pele believe the geothermal plant is a “nonconsensual rape of the deity, literally digging into her body and extracting her life, her lifeblood, her lava.”

“We were very against geothermal then, and we are still very against it now,” she said, referring to when geothermal development began Hawaii. “Nothing has changed.”

Ruderman acknowledged it was an “intuitive feeling” that many people in Puna have. “There are lots of people here who feel a strong connection between geothermal and Pele, that Pele hates geothermal, wants it gone. Some people think the eruption is all about that.”

Kahakalau said she hopes the plant will remain closed. “We have so much other renewable energy sources, we don’t need geothermal energy,” she said. 

Yet PGV does play a major role in the island's energy supply. The plant says it provides about 30 percent of the electricity on the Big Island. It uses the naturally occurring heat to produce energy. Geothermal fluid is brought to the surface through wells, which are drilled almost a mile into the ground to tap into waters at extremely high heat, and the steam is used to produce electricity. 

Hawai'i Electric Light, the island's electric company, said in 2017, 14 percent of the renewable energy statewide was produced by geothermal energy from the island. Since PGV’s closure, the company said it has used a mix of fossil fuels, solar, wind and hydropower to generate power without any issues or outages. 

Roland Horne, director of the Stanford Geothermal Program, said that geothermal energy is the “best” option for renewable energy for Hawaii — and the risks associated with PGV are low. “In terms of alternatives, geothermal is a wonderful alternative to burning oil. They do have wind and solar in Hawaii, too, but of course it’s intermittent,” he said. “It would actually be a dreadful shame if they weren’t able to restart it, either for political reasons or for geological reasons.”

Still, Ruderman and Petricci both said PGV would not reopen without a fight.

“I can’t believe you’re going to look at this picture and say, 'Let’s double down, let’s spend millions to get this back online now, looks like a pretty safe place to be, looks like a good bet, huh?' " Ruderman said. “Who’s going to do that?”

Ruderman, who along with Kahakalau and Petricci has been arrested for protesting the plant, said he believes the uproar if the plant reopens would be even greater now. “A lot more people are aware of geothermal now, and many more people are living here now, and I think the protests that would happen; the outcry would dwarf the protests in 1991,” he said.


Here’s the latest on Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt:

  • How does Pruitt still have a job? The stories about Pruitt’s questionable conduct keep on coming, and the White House has mostly offered passive statements of continued support. All the while, Pruitt has remained in his role. The Post reports that is because of the relationship he has built with the president. Pruitt has “ingratiat[ed] himself personally" with the president, "extolling the president’s abilities and strongly backing him on policy in meetings and in regular one-on-one conversations,” Josh Dawsey, Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis report. “That approach also helps explain how the former Oklahoma attorney general has kept his job amid a bevy of transgressions that are similar to, or worse than, those that have cost other Cabinet officials their positions.”
  • For example: Ahead of the decision to pull out of the Paris climate accord, Trump wanted to consult with Pruitt. The EPA chief just happened to be in the White House Mess, and he had just ordered the ice cream special. “Once in the Oval Office, Pruitt reinforced Trump’s desire to leave the accord, arguing against other advisers so long that an aide had to bring a cup so his melting ice cream wouldn’t drip onto the presidential rug."
  • Another day, another probe: The Office of Government Ethics on Friday asked the EPA’s inspector general to expand and accelerate the probe into Pruitt’s actions. There are already a dozen federal inquiries into Pruitt, but the letter late last week called on the government watchdog to look into reports that Pruitt had advisers run personal errands and that he attempted to used government resources to secure a job for his wife, according to the Wall Street Journal.
  • Trump’s latest tepid statement of support: “I’m looking at Scott and Scott’s done a fantastic job at EPA, but … I’m not happy about certain things, I’ll be honest,” Trump told reporters Friday morning on the White House lawn. “I’m not happy about certain things, but he’s done a fantastic job running the EPA, which is very overriding.”
  • Pruitt has to face the Trump base over ethanol, not ethics: Pruitt’s troubles with politicians and farmers across Trump country could be a threat to the administrator’s hold on his role, Politico reports. But is issues with farmers are not over his ethical controversies. Instead, they “stem from accusations that he’s weakening an ethanol mandate that provides a lifeline to corn growers in states like Iowa, Kansas, South Dakota and Nebraska,” per the report. “Reminders of the controversy have dogged Pruitt throughout his Midwestern tour this week, even as his ethical, spending and travel problems mounted inside the Beltway.”

— No ANWR oil before 2030: The Energy Information Administration said oil from the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, also known as ANWR, won’t be added to the U.S. production until after 2030. "Much uncertainty surrounds any projection of production from ANWR,” the energy agency said late last week. On Friday, Alaskans flocked to Washington as the Bureau of Land Management held its final public hearing on the scope of that review.

However: The Trump administration, along with Republicans in Congress, are eager to quickly get through the environmental review process for drilling there before a Democrat has a chance to regain the White House in 2020 and potentially slow it down. On Friday, pro- and anti-drilling advocates from Alaska and elsewhere flocked to Washington, according to the Anchorage Daily News, as the Bureau of Land Management held its final public hearing on the scope of that review.


— Oil watch: OPEC members are discussing a compromise agreement that would lead to an oil output increase of between 300,000 and 600,000 barrels a day in the next few months, Bloomberg News reports.

The reports follow news Sunday that Iran said three OPEC members, including Venezuela and Iraq, will block the proposal to increase oil productions during the meeting this week in Vienna with OPEC and its allies. But some officials say a deal can be reached for a modest increase at this week’s meeting.

— The key to clean energy? Natural gas, energy ministers say: A consensus statement from Group of 20 energy ministers representing two-thirds of the global population stated that natural gas will be a key toward a future of clean energy. The group of ministers, which included Energy Secretary Rick Perry, said nations that “opt to enhance their renewable energy strategies” should aim to increase investment in that area, Bloomberg News reports.

A surprising concession: As Bloomberg notes, "[t]he result represented a concession for the U.S. by acknowledging the importance of transitions to cleaner energy sources ‘to achieve emissions reductions, and for those countries that are determined to implement the Paris agreement.’”

However: The notion that natural gas, with its lower carbon emissions than coal, is necessary to reduce pollution from the energy system is controversial among many environmental groups who wish to see nations switch directly to to wind and solar generation instead.

— Perry’s plans to help Argentina: During that meeting in Argentina, Perry said he is planning to help the South American nation work with companies in the United States that have oil and gas expertise as the nation faces a natural-gas trade deficit. Argentinian President Mauricio Macri is looking to replicate the success of the Permian Basin, Bloomberg reports. “One of the things that I offered Juan Jose is U.S. technology partnerships, to make the introductions with the private sector,” Perry told reporters in Bariloche, Argentina, referring to the energy minister. “The technology that has allowed for the shale gas revolution in America we want to make available to Argentina.”

— The last straw: McDonald’s announced it will phase out the use of plastic straws at its 1,361 restaurants in Britain by the end of next year, the latest company to join the effort to curb the use of plastics. McDonald’s currently uses 1.8 million plastic straws per day, the New York Times reports, and plans to replace them with paper straws. The announcement follows a remark from McDonald's chief executive Steve Easterbrook who told CNBC earlier this month there is “currently a viable alternative that's nonplastic at the moment, at the scale we need.”

— Big truck, small engine: Major U.S. carmakers are putting smaller fuel-efficient engines in big pickup trucks, a change from the usual practice of gas-guzzling engines in such cars, the Wall Street Journal reports. Ford, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler are betting such a move will entice truck buyers who want better gas mileage.

— No more monkeying around: German authorities detained the chief executive. of Volkswagen’s Audi division, Rupert Stadler, on Monday in connection with the investigation into its diesel emissions cheating scandal, the Associated Press reports. There is a total of 20 people under suspicion in the investigation into Audi's sale of cars equipped with software that could turned required emissions controls on and off.


— The Chesapeake Bay cleanup seems to be working: For the first time in 33 years, scientists who examine the health of the bay, the nation’s largest estuary, found that it had improved in every region, likely showing the massive federal cleanup plan is working. “In sharp contrast to the days when the bay was so beleaguered that every meaningful species experienced sharp population declines, officials and scientists from the District, Maryland and Virginia announced Friday that it is in the midst of a full and remarkable recovery,” The Post’s Darryl Fears reports. “As if to underscore the progress, their backdrop along the District’s southwest waterfront was a brilliantly sunny morning and a picturesque view of the Anacostia River, which feeds into the Chesapeake.”

— “I don’t want to be right in that sense:” NASA’s former top climate scientist, James Hansen, wishes he had been able to more emphatically warn the public about the dangers of climate change. Climate scientists now tout the accuracy of Hansen’s predictions and his warning about global warming 30 years ago. “I don’t want to be right in that sense,” Hansen told the AP in an interview, adding he hoped instead “that the warning be heeded and actions be taken.” He said he regrets not being “able to make this story clear enough for the public.”

Flashback: Thirty years ago, in June 1988, Hansen delivered a now famous testimony to the Senate introducing the concept of human-caused global warming to many in the public for the first time. His appearance in Congress, along with sweltering temperatures outside that summer, prompted Time magazine to dub Earth "Planet of the Year" at the end of 1988.

— El Niño is likely coming back and may make our summer even more muggy: The National Weather Service issued an El Niño watch last week, which means there’s a 50 percent chance that one could develop by the fall and a 65 percent chance it could develop by the winter, Greg Porter reports for The Post. “Recent observations and computer model forecasts are hinting that we are at the onset of above-normal sea surface temperatures in the eastern and central Pacific, which could be a harbinger of El Niño,” he writes. And he adds the most significant potential implications include increased rainfall and mugginess and less Atlantic hurricane activity.

— Bumblebee buzz: To understand why populations of bumblebees, an important pollinator, are declining in some places, wildlife officials in the states of Washington, Oregon and Idaho have launched the Pacific Northwest Bumble Bee Atlas project to catalogue nearly 30 bumblebee species in the region.

The aim, according to the AP: "Citizen scientists are being dispatched to selected 2.5-acre (1-hectare) sites with insect nets, plant and bee guides, and an app for smartphones so findings can be recorded, photographed, mapped and sent to a central database... Bees are captured and put in a chilled cooler so they go into a state of lethargy. Diagnostic photos are taken, and the bees are released unharmed when they warm up."



  • Resources for the Future holds a webinar on “The Economics of Electricity System Resilience.”
  • The Center for Strategic and International Studies holds a conversation with members of the University Climate Change Coalition.

Coming Up

  • The American Council on Renewable Energy holds its finance forum on Tuesday and Wednesday.
  • The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works will hold a hearing on the nominations of William Charles McIntosh and Peter C. Wright to be assistant EPA administrators on Wednesday.
  • The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy holds a hearing on “the Benefits of Tax Reform on the Energy Sector and Consumers” on Wednesday.
  • The Atlantic Council holds its US launch of the 2018 BP Statistical Review of Energy on Wednesday.
  • The EPA holds a webinar on “Environmental Sampling and Analytical Methods for Environmental Remediation and Recovery” on Wednesday.
  • The Center for Strategic and International Studies hosts the launch of Bloomberg New Energy Finance's New Energy Outlook 2018 on Wednesday.
  • The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission holds a public meeting on Tuesday and Thursday.
  • The House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Environment holds a hearing on “State Perspectives on Regulating Background Ozone” on Thursday.
  • The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission holds a meeting on Thursday.
  • The Wilson Center holds a briefing on “Energy Innovation in Remote Arctic Communities” on Thursday.
  • The Center for Strategic and International Studies holds a discussion with Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good on Thursday.
  • Brookings Institution holds an event on “Blending climate finance for low-carbon infrastructure” on Friday.
Around 1,000 people attended a memorial service in London for British physicist Stephen Hawking on June 15, as his ashes were laid to rest in Westminster Abbey. (Video: Reuters)

— Celebrating Hawking's life: About 1,000 people attended the memorial service for British physicist Stephen Hawking, The Post's Lindsey Bever reports. As his ashes were lowered into the ground, his voice was beamed from Earth toward the nearest known black hole, a kind of celestial object Hawking spent much of his life studying.