EPA asks HELCO to stop smoking


HILO — Hawaii Electric Light Co. must take measures to cap emissions from three East Hawaii oil-fueled boilers by 2018 to reduce impacts on the state’s two national parks.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency quietly rolled out the rule Oct. 9, following public hearings on the topic in May and June. As stated in a 30-page final rule in the Federal Register, the EPA issued a final federal implementation plan capping emissions at 3,550 tons of sulfur dioxide per year from HELCO’s Hill, Shipman and Puna power plants.

“If HELCO chooses to meet the cap by switching to cleaner fuel, then the EPA estimates that the costs will be no more than approximately $7.9 million (per) year,” the EPA said. “This cap represents a reduction of 1,400 tons per year of sulfur dioxide from the total projected 2018 annual emissions from these facilities.”

The emissions from the three plants totaled 3,209.7 tons in 2011, or 340 tons below the maximum level allowed in 2018. The 1,400-ton reduction is an EPA-generated estimate; HELCO managers say the actual amount could be well below that, given the increased focus on adding renewable generating capacity.

“We’re not even convinced that we’ll be at that 4,900-ton theoretical level if nothing was done,” said Curtis Beck, manager of HELCO’s Energy Services Department.

HELCO President Jay Ignacio said in a statement the utility is committed to protecting the environment and is in support of the EPA’s plan.

Ignacio said HELCO was evaluating the switch from bunker fuel, with its maximum 2 percent sulfur content, to diesel fuel, which is more expensive but has a sulfur content of no more than 0.4 percent. This is one of many alternatives being considered, he said. The $7.9 million figure represents the cost of switching completely from bunker to diesel fuel.

He also said HELCO will work to “manage costs” that are being incurred as a result of compliance, but the utility “does not anticipate additional costs associated with … compliance in the immediate future.”

The EPA regulations are being implemented to bring Hawaii in compliance with the Clean Air Act, and to make progress toward a nationwide goal of removing any human-generated visibility on what the government terms “Class I areas” — important federal conservation lands, in this case Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and Haleakala National Park — by 2064.

The twist in this case is that Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is home to Kilauea volcano, which is one of the largest single sources of sulfur dioxide in the United States.

The U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory estimates that emissions from the lava lake at Halemaumau crater average 660 tons of sulfur dioxide per day, in addition to the 330 tons emitted from the East Rift Zone, which includes Puu ‘Oo.

Sulfur dioxide is a major component of both human-caused smog and volcanic vog. Ignacio said HELCO will “continue to work” with EPA and the state Department of Health, on the appropriate approach for considering the role of vog in measuring progress, which was a sticking point during the formulation of the plan.

Ignacio said the emissions cap is not related to the recent release of a geothermal energy request for proposals, nor is it behind HELCO’s plans to invest in biofuel plants like Hu Honua or Aina Koa Pono.

The prime motives behind those moves is the reduction in energy costs, in the case of geothermal, and the stabilization of future energy costs, in the case of bioenergy. “Both of these initiatives also have the added benefit of reducing SO2 emissions,” Ignacio said.