Hawaiian Geothermal Energy: A Gift from the Gods?

This post is part of a blogging series by economics students at the Presidio Graduate School’s MBA program. You can follow along here.

By Tia Ferguson

In 1881, King David Kalakaua of Hawaii and several of his closest advisors paid a visit to New York.  During this visit, Kalakaua sought the counsel of Thomas Edison regarding an extraordinary vision – the possibility to harness the myriad natural resources that Hawaii possesses to create power.  As a result, Honolulu became one of the first Western cities to have electric streetlights, powered by a nearby hydroelectric plant.

Over a century later, Hawaii has embraced elements of that vision in the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative. And for good reason.  Hawaii is the most fossil fuel dependent state in the nation; imported oil is used to supply over 90 percent of the state’s energy needs.  The Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative was established to turn the course of this dependency, developing a roadmap for transitioning the state to 70 percent clean energy by 2030.  One such resource that may facilitate this transition is geothermal energy.

The potential for geothermal energy resources in Hawaii is obvious.  The Hawaiian Islands were formed by a geological “hot spot” within the earth’s mantle that has been volcanically active for the past 70 million years.  Programs to analyze geothermal resource potential in Hawaii began in 1978.  The island of Hawaii possesses the most recently active volcanos and demonstrates large and existing potential for the use of geothermal energy.  The combined geothermal resources of the Big Island could provide between 500 and 700 Megawatts of power, enough energy to supply many thousands of homes with around-the-clock clean power.  On Maui, the Southwest Rift Zone is capable of supplying up to 140MW of energy, which amounts to over two-thirds of the island’s energy demand, according to the Maui County Energy Alliance.

From a technical standpoint, geothermal power production is a particularly attractive option because it is considered a “firm” source of renewable power.  This means that, whereas wind and solar energy production fluctuate according to atmospheric conditions, geothermal heat is available around the clock and therefore does not pose a threat to the stability of electrical distribution systems.

Further, Hawaii’s population pays among the highest costs for electricity and gasoline of any state – just over $0.30 per kWh.

In contrast, a geothermal assessment study published by the State of Hawaii Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism determined that the levelized power cost of geothermal, (including all potential geothermal energy resources and considering all upfront capital requirements and O&M costs) would be about $0.08 cents per kilowatt-hour, with a standard deviation of $0.007 per kilowatt-hour.  In other words, all said and done, geothermal electricity could power Hawaii at a quarter of the current cost of fossil fuel based power.

However, geothermal power production has been met with staunch opposition by native Hawaiian cultural activists who feel that extracting this heat resource is a desecration of the fire goddess, Pele.  To adherents of this philosophy, harnessing geothermal resources threatens the sanctity of the home and body of the fire goddess.  According to Michael Edelstein and Deborah Kleese, “the lengthy administrative proceedings in this matter are instructive of the marginalization of native peoples and their difficulty in gaining recognition for cultural impacts in a decision-making process that is built around the rationality of the dominant Western worldview.”  Considering this, harnessing geothermal resources for energy production may prove insufficient in satisfying human wants, should the cost of doing so outweigh the benefit of energy provision.

Whether the seemingly conflicting people and planet considerations of energy sustainability in Hawaii can be reconciled or better aligned is entirely up to determination by the native Hawaiian community.  Perhaps reframing the employment of geothermal power production as a way to celebrate and honor the fire goddess is one such way to do so.  But as such and until then, it would be blatantly unsustainable – if not unethical – for the state to sanction a culturally violating activity as a means of achieving its goals of energy independence.

Tia Ferguson is a native of the state of Hawaii, where she has been involved in carrying out a number of renewable energy projects, including the DOE-funded Maui Smart Grid project. A recent transplant to the Bay Area, Tia is now studying sustainable management at Presidio Graduate School and hopes to bring this knowledge to affecting sustainability in her home state upon obtaining her MBA and JD.  When on island and on her free time, Tia leads hikes through the Waikamoi Preserve, a native cloud forest on windward Haleakala, as a docent hike leader for the Nature Conservancy.