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Hawaiian Geothermal Energy: A Gift from the Gods?

Presidio Economics | Friday June 3rd, 2011 | 14 Comments

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.


▼▼▼      14 Comments     ▼▼▼

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  • http://jaybanks.ca Jay Banks

    I think the activists don’t need to worry because the project will not be supported because the initial costs would be too high for the country. Despite its efficiency, stability, and technical feasibility, I don’t think the US government would be willing to invest so much money into this project.

  • Steve Melton

    I appreciate native groups wanting to keep the impact of outsiders to a minimum, but I hate to say it, Hawaii long ago was changed. Today it’s a (theoretically) modern multicultural society and these guys are demonstrating the dumbest, most stubborn and myopic resistance to a better future I’ve ever heard of. Anyone opposed to geothermal on Hawaii does not deserve to call themselves a native, especially if they’re claiming it will anger some “god”. Please, shut up!

    These are probably the same imbeciles who would rather have more traffic than let a better transit line disturb a few relics and gravestones. Idiots.

    I certainly hope people can open their minds a little bit. Until then, Hawaii remains one of the most backward states out there – essentially West Virginia plopped into the ocean.

    • Amanda Philips

      Yeah, I’m all for native engagement, but I wonder what the native Hawaiian community has to say about extracting oil, refining it and shipping it halfway around the world. That’s gotta piss some god somewhere off.

      I think the native community might not understand how geothermal actually works, and if they did they might not be so scared. Utilizing the geothermal energy doesn’t reduce it’s force in any way. If we assume Pele is for real, geothermal is more like making use of the energy that is already being let off from her hair than it is extracting it from her.

      I’m not going to recommend ignoring native groups (even if their arguments sound non-sensical) , but it seems like some stakeholder engagement is in order- let’s talk about the community’s concerns and explain the science and see if we can ameliorate their concerns.

      • Nick Aster

        Excellent use of metaphor. Much like “creation care”. If you’re dealing with borderline illiterate people who need to understand something (for their own good as well as everyone else’s) then it’s much smarter and kinder to embrace their cultural metaphors and find a way to work with them, rather than just dismissing them as stupid.

    • PaiaGirl

      Don’t diss an entire sovereign people who are under U.S. occupation. I don’t come over to your place and presume to to criticize your beliefs and culture.

      That said, I am plugged into the issue and the Hawaiian culture and I have NEVER heard anyone dissing this project on the basis of “Pele”. I HAVE heard people concerned because that area has a lot of archaeological artifacts and sites.

      For a more comprehensive discussion of this issue see my post above.

    • Andre Bisquera

      To say you appreciate native groups and then call them imbeciles in the next sentence is really quite closed-minded and ignorant. Here you are, on a website that promotes people, planet, profits, and you are insulting the first P- people. Please open your mind a little bit to a culture that you obviously no nothing about and consider the historic and culture importance of Hawaiian burial grounds. While you may not care if someone was to come and turn your ancestors grave into a highway or power plant, the Native Hawaiians take great reverence to the past and the people who came before them. Native Hawaiians were very much against geothermal development in the late 70s/early 80s, but even staunch opponent Mililani Trask is now coming around to the possibility of more geothermal development in the face of Hawaii’s dependence on imported oil. Technology today is less intrusive and there are efforts in taking a community-oriented perspective that make geothermal a viable energy alternative. So before you make stereotypical remarks about an entire population of native people, please do your homework and understand the issues involved and the work currently being done on renewable energy in Hawaii.

      • Steve Melton

        Andre, I apologize for my brusqueness. I have spent a lot of time in Hawaii and left ultimately for a variety of reasons. One was that the culture was just too slow for me – innovation and new ideas are definitely not celebrated here. But also that there was a profound, almost paranoid distrust of outsiders.

        I understand the reasons for this. Ol’Whitey made a mess of the place, no question about it. But times have changed for all cultures and the Hawaiians can be no different.

        My unsympathetic reaction was to the author’s original report of superstition being the reasons behind resistance to geothermal. I am happy to hear of your report that this resistance is waning and I hope for the sake of Hawaii that this is true. I admit I did not know of this. The unfortunate fact is that most of the people I have interacted with in Hawaii (haole and native) barely know how to recycle much less have an awareness or opinion about geothermal energy.

        This is totally unacceptable and crosses the line where I cease to have any sympathy for primitive superstitions wherever they come from.

        Hawaii (all the cultures that are there) needs to get their act together. That is my principal point.

        • Andre Bisquera

          Let’s take race and superstition out of the argument, and look at it from a business perspective. If we are truly coming from a CSR and/or Triple P viewpoint, we are trying to move away from just business as usual. We are looking to create a sustainable business model that takes into account the environment, people, and communities. If there are objections by stakeholders (people and communities) it’s our duty to engage them and understand their concerns. People here in Hawaii aren’t against change and innovation. They just want to be engaged and be heard, and not feel that an outsider knows best or is ignoring their concerns. While I agree that Hawaii maybe a little behind, it doesn’t mean we write off the entire population. It’s an opportunity for us to educate. It’s an opportunity for us to learn more about Hawaiian culture. It’s an opportunity for us to learn more about ourselves and how we relate to the world. Things are changing here. I find that the people who are taking a collaborative approach are making the most progress.

  • William

    Many residential with their underfloor heating pipes are switching to geo-thermal, It will not cost as much as you think, maye as much as A/C unit but your house have to be equiped with under floor heat pipes instesd of central A/C unit roof pipes. I don’t think “Big Oil” like this.

  • PaiaGirl

    This is an issue that those where who do not live on Maui probably do not grasp all the ramifications.

    Geothermal would be a blessing because it provides firm power to a place with sky-high electric bills because most of our electricity is generated by diesel. Solar PV and wind are great but they are nonfirm and it would be good to stabilize the generation with a good firm non-polluting source BUT:

    1. The area is so quiet that people 2000 feet up the mountain can hear the ocean below. No matter how quiet the operation is, many, many people will hear it.

    2. It requires building roads and a transmission line into this area which was formerly pristine, empty view plains. It is one of the last undeveloped places on Maui.

    3. Allowing the road and transmission line will inevitably lead to development in that area.

    4. We are drawing down our main aquifer at a rate of 9 feet per year — soon that aquifer will be entirely salty. More developement means only the rich will be able to afford water (which is already at $100/month for us)

    5. There is only a 20% chance the test wells will prove out…but the roads will be there and development will inevitably follow.

    So although I do favor this project, I could easily be swayed by these negatives.

    • PaiaGirl

      I forgot to add that a lot of the people out in that area are on PV with batteries and not even hooked into the grid…so it does seem unfair to make a noisy, ugly mess out there.

      • Nick Aster

        Some heated comments on here!

        This is a very good point. Despite the big resorts, many people live pretty low impact in Hawaii. A few PV panels and some batters is really all you need out in the sticks. Perhaps keeping that low impact mentality in the forefront would solve the problem before it starts by simply reducing demand rather than increasing supply of energy. Wishful thinking?

    • Hiram Pane

      Yeah, Hawaii is a mess. Imbecile developers and people with more money than soul continue to ravage the place. The reality is I don’t see it ever going back to anything like the roots it once had. Just never going to happen.

      So a project like this is a million times better than the insane burning of petrol for electricity. It can also be used for powering electric cars – another insane thing about Hawaii is that people are still driving around with gas powered vehicles… just totally backward.