More than 200 geothermal power protesters gather outside HELCO


More than 200 people staged a peaceful protest Monday outside Hawaii Electric Light Co.’s Hilo headquarters to express displeasure with the utility’s plan to expand geothermal energy development on the Big Island.

The protest was organized by Puna Pono Alliance, an environmental group opposed to geothermal expansion. Some of the demonstrators had taken part in a three-day march to Hilo starting Saturday from Pahoa High School.

The protesters lined all four corners of the intersection of Kilauea Avenue and Kekuanaoa Street, and waved signs with slogans such as “SAVE POHOIKI” and “HELL NO, HELCO.” They shouted and waved at passing vehicles, and many drivers honked back, as the sound of drums and a trumpet filled the midday air.

“We are out here to raise awareness that geothermal is not being done properly in our neighborhood. The safety and health studies have not been properly conducted,” Puna Pono Alliance member Derek Brewer said. “We need to be listened to and people need to understand that the health of the community and the welfare of the community is one of most important factors, and we cannot allow business to dictate the health and welfare of the people.”

Brewer said he was “sick and tired” of gas leaks and groundwater contamination at Puna Geothermal Venture’s 38-megawatt plant. While past releases of hydrogen sulfide gas have been documented, PGV Manager Mike Kaleikini told Stephens Media in September that the facility’s injection wells return geothermal fluids to the resource area through injection wells, far below the production zone and water table, and that groundwater is not contaminated.

HELCO President Jay Ignacio met inside for about 45 minutes with representatives of the group, including Puna Pono Alliance President Robert Petricci and protest organizer Steve Sparks. Petricci presented Ignacio a petition he said contains about 3,400 signatures requesting the utility withdraw its request for proposal for bids from developers for a 50-megawatt geothermal power plant.

“We want Hawaii Electric Light Co. (HELCO) to stop its contract for new geothermal development on the Island of Hawaii, because the contract was excluded from the utility company’s recent public planning effort, and previous geothermal sites on this island have been notoriously unsafe, unclean, and poorly regulated,” the petition states.

Sparks also gave Ignacio a map of the Big Island with pins representing where the protesters live.

“It was nice of Jay to meet with us and we did have an interesting conversation,” Petricci said afterward. “It doesn’t sound like he’s gonna withdraw the contract but we asked him to consider a moratorium and I think he is gonna think about that and we’re gonna talk about that some more,” he added.

“If you’re gonna build a 50-megawatt geothermal power plant, why even have a planning process? You don’t need any more power. So basically, they put the cart before the horse and issued a contract for a 50-megawatt power plant. And then they do a planning process to see what should they do. You should do the planning process before you do the contract,” Petricci said.

Ignacio emerged from HELCO offices to meet briefly with demonstrators, who presented him with a ti leaf lei and a small, ripe pineapple.

“This represents the food we grow in Puna. It’s organic and it’s homegrown,” said the man who handed Ignacio the pineapple. “And with geothermal plants going into farmland, we’re not going to be able to grow the same good food.”

Ignacio told the crowd that the meeting provided him with “some insight into your concerns.”

“We’re gonna continue to work with the alliance to see if we can come up with a good resolution,” he said.

“They expressed a desire to put a moratorium on the (request for proposal), to delay the RFP until the results of that, and I kind of asked could we do it in parallel and still address the concerns of the Adler (health study) in parallel with proceeding with development, but we didn’t come to any conclusion on that,” Ignacio said after the meeting. “What we put in our request for proposal is that any developer selected before any development proceeds needs to comply with all laws and regulations, and that’s how we’re complying with public health concerns.”

Ignacio said that HELCO has received bids but the numbers and terms of those bids remain confidential. He’s hoping a developer will be selected by the end of the year.

“Once we make a selection, though, that doesn’t mean it’s a firm commitment,” he said. “We’ll probably do more detailed negotiations with whoever’s selected, then come to a final agreement and contract. … Ideally, we would like to get geothermal energy to reduce the cost of electricity on our island and still maintain reliable service. But we need to address the public’s concern and we need to do geothermal energy in a safe manner.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.