HILO — Calling geothermal a taonga, or treasure, a representative of a Maori trust in New Zealand promoted the use of the Earth’s heat to produce electricity Tuesday evening while highlighting ways it can help indigenous people.
Speaking to more than two dozen people at the Wainaku Executive Center, Sandra Eru, attorney for the Taheke 8C trust, said geothermal power presents opportunities for native people to benefit from their resources and can be developed with their cultural needs in mind.
The trust has drilled three wells on its property, which it hopes to use to operate a 25-megawatt plant.
It has partnered with Innovations Development Group, a Honolulu-based company that promotes its “native-to-native model” for developing geothermal. IDG has submitted a bid to Hawaii Electric Light Co. for producing another 50 mgw of geothermal power.
Eru said Taheke 8C is using the same model, which focuses on respecting native cultures and protecting the environment, to benefit its members.
“The native-to-native model from a Maori perspective enshrines cultural values that are the same to all indigenous people,” she said.
Revenue will be used to fund education and health programs, Eru said.
She was joined by trust chairman, Tawhiri Morehu, at the private event, hosted by IDG and Indigenous Consultants.
Morehu said the trust manages 1,134 hectares of land on behalf of its beneficiaries, which it calls shareholders.
“The land still belongs to all the shareholders,” he said.
Most of the land has been used for sheep and cattle ranching, as well as forestry.
Eru, who is also the manager for the trust’s geothermal project, said the people of Hawaii are “fortunate enough to have this resource on your doorstep.”
She told Stephens Media Hawaii that she doesn’t see geothermal development as presenting any conflicts with Maori cultural or religious beliefs.
“Maori have always used the geothermal resource one way or another,” Eru said, citing bathing, cooking and medicinal uses as examples.
Some Hawaiians have been opposed to geothermal power, believing it is an insult to Pele.
T0 address those concerns, IDG CEO Patricia Brandt said, “Work with us to find a solution.”
“Everything we do with the resource is for the island and its people,” she said. “We are ohana.”
If awarded the contract for the next 50 mgw of geothermal energy, Brandt said IDG would set up a community trust.
“We’re sticking our neck out and making that commitment,” she said.
IDG has the support of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, which agreed last April to chip in $1.25 million to the Huena Power Consortium, set up by IDG to bid on the HELCO contract.
That contribution came with the support of several Big Island state lawmakers but was criticized by the Native Hawaiian Policy Center for being an investment into a single business without having a procedure for other OHA beneficiaries to seek similar arrangements.
IDG is hoping to tap 406 acres of Kealoha Estate land in Pohoiki if it wins the contract.
HELCO, which received six bids, initially said it was hoping to award a contract this month. It’s now aiming for November.
OHA’s investment required a $600,000 upfront contribution.
If IDG wins the contract, OHA could see a more than 20 percent return on investment, according to IDG.
OHA already receives 20 percent of the state’s geothermal royalties.
Geothermal development, while promoted as a cheap renewable energy source, has continued to be controversial.
Residents of Puna, home to the state’s only geothermal plant, have been outspoken about potential health impacts.
A protest against further geothermal expansion last month attracted more than 200 people in Hilo.
Eru said the Maori trust takes health and environmental impacts seriously but noted that one of its wells has been releasing steam and gas unabated.
She said sheep continue to graze next to it without any problems.
“As I say, the proof is in the pudding, and the sheep are still alive,” Eru said.
Additionally, she joked that hydrogen sulfide, a gas released by geothermal activity, can have the same effect as Viagra.
A Geothermal Public Health Assessment commissioned by Hawaii County was finalized Sept. 9.
The report provides eight recommendations, including a comprehensive health study be done in Puna to assess any impacts from the 20-plus years of geothermal development there; an analysis of the impacts of hydrogen sulfide, a product of geothermal development; increased air monitoring; and strengthening public communications and alerts.
Email Tom Callis at email@example.com.