Geothermal Energy and Sustainability


By Kamaile Puluole-Mitchell, OHA Public Policy Advocate, Hilo

Puna is considered one of the most sacred places to Native Hawaiians. Located on the island of Hawaiʻi, the moku of Puna is the easternmost part of the island, where the day starts, life evolves, and new life is created.

Puna is home to Kīlauea and to volcano goddess Pele and her ʻohana. Traditional moʻolelo (stories) and chants about Puna talk about the northeast trade winds that create cloud formations with many types of rains, such as “ka ua moaniani lehua o Puna” (the rain that brings the fragrance of the lehua of Puna).

The newest waters in the easternmost district of Puna are believed to be formed by Kaneikawaiola, the god of freshwater springs and streams. He protects the subsurface waters, the main source of the volcanic steam which forms the bloodstream of the volcano deity, Pelehonumea. The steam is believed to be the mana, the life force, and the energy of Pele.

Throughout the district of Puna, traditional chants describe Pele’s sacred bathing places – warm pools in caves and below the ground, such as Kaukala and Punahakeone. Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners believe that the waters of the Puna district are sacred to Kaneikawaiola, and that the steam generated by the heat of pele (lava) are sacred to Pele.

Not unexpectedly, since the 1980s volcanic activity in Puna has attracted investors interested in producing “green energy.”

The geothermal industry in Hawaiʻi considers Puna to a valuable source of energy to produce electricity for Hawaiʻi Island. Puna Geothermal Venture (PGV) has operated in Puna for nearly 30 years with a promise to provide clean energy at a lower cost to consumers.

PGV began generating power in May 1993 and, on average, provided more than 25% of the island’s annual power demands until the plant shutdown in May 2018. The shutdown – a result of the devastating Kīlauea East Rift Zone (KERZ) eruption – left PGV unable to produce electricity.

Due to the inundation of lava, the original geothermal wells were modified, and new wells were drilled to provide for electrical production. PGV is currently working on updating its power plant equipment and infrastructure to provide more efficient units that meet clean energy requirements.

PGV applied for, and received, two permits to modify (i.e., clean-out) existing geothermal wells, and two permits to drill new geothermal wells. Section 196D-11, HRS – Geothermal and Cable System Development – clarifies that the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) is responsible for the effective management of geothermal resources and its development, as well as to protect the health and safety of the public and to ensure the continued viability of the resource for the future.

PGV has recently submitted a draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) for consideration of a new contract. Currently, the island of Hawaiʻi is the only island benefiting from geothermal development but PGV has only been able to produce 25.7 megawatts of power since it’s reopening of operations. PGV’s goal is to increase production to its pre-eruption level of 38 megawatts and eventually get to 46 megawatts under an amended power purchase agreement with Hawaiian Electric.

Most people are not aware that the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) receives royalties from geothermal energy production. The royalties are part of the $21.5 million pro rata share of Public Land Trust (PLT) revenue paid to OHA each year.

PLT revenue received from PGV is acquired through the state. HRS § 182-18 requires DLNR to submit an annual report to the state legislature of all geothermal royalties received by the state. Per HRS § 182-7(c), 30% of geothermal royalties (gross) that are received by the state must go to the county in which the geothermal lease is located.

Per Act 178 (2006) and its implementing procedures, OHA is to receive 20% of gross receipts from geothermal royalties. The remaining 50% of gross geothermal royalties is retained by the state. Each quarter, OHA receives payments, primarily via journal vouchers, from individual state agencies and departments, including DLNR.

PLT funds are aggregated with OHA’s other sources of revenue (e.g., legislative appropriations, Native Hawaiian Trust Fund) and spent as approved by OHA’s Board of Trustees. State law does not otherwise direct or limit the spending of geothermal royalties, only its distribution as intended to “better the conditions of Native Hawaiians.”

Without a doubt, sustainability in Hawaiʻi – whether energy sources, food production or economic diversity – has been top of mind for most people since the pandemic.

During 2023, Hawaiʻi County set aside money in its budget to create a new agency dedicated to sustainability, environmental impacts, and climate change resilience. Called the Office of Sustainability, Climate, Equity and Resilience, it was created after collaboration between the County Council, community advocates and others. It is a step in the right direction.

Our entire pae ʻāina needs sustainable energy solutions. The path forward, however, is complex as we consider the environmental and cultural aspects of sustainability.