Thursday, December 11, 2008

Big Island Geothermal Venture Marks 15th Year

Often overlooked as a natural energy resource in Hawaii is the geothermal field on the Big Island. Puna Geothermal Venture’s plant celebrated its 15th anniversary yesterday, an event recorded by a new and promising news-gathering organization, Big Island

The video coverage highlights the participation of native Hawaiians in the ceremony. It’s the usual practice at groundbreakings and blessings in Hawaii for prayers and chants to be offered by representatives of the host culture. Beyond the usual ceremonial practice, it’s worth noting that native Hawaiian support will be required if the resource is ever to grow beyond 30 megawatts, the plant’s current size. (The above photo shows a segment of the cable once proposed to transmit electricity from the Big Island to Oahu.)

Native Hawaiian concerns about the industry’s potential to respect their culture, as well as damage the Wao Kele O Puna rainforest, was instrumental in blocking plans to expand the geothermal field. The Pele Defense Fund, backed by the Rainforest Action Network, was the most visible defender of cultural practices and an environment cherished by Hawaiians, including the rainforest.

Described by the Network as the last large lowland expanse of tropical rainforest in Hawaii, Wao Kele O Puna was eyed in the 1980s as a potential 500-MW geothermal field. The federally funded Hawaii Deep Water Cable Program explored transmission of electricity from the Big Island to Oahu using a seabed cable across the Alenuihaha Channel between Hawaii Island and Maui, then onward to Oahu. (The project is described in detail in the document “Hawaii and Geothermal: What Has Been Happening?”)

A Cultural Miscalculation

In their enthusiasm over geothermal energy’s potential, supporters misunderstood or simply were unaware of native Hawaiian cultural and religious sensitivities surrounding geothermal energy. Many Hawaiians came forward to say exploitation of that potential would be an affront to Pele, goddess of fire and protector of the Big Island’s volcanoes (at right, as envisioned by artist Walfrido Garcia).

That miscalculation included Hawaiian Electric Company’s TV spot in the early ‘80s shot near the rim of Halemaumau Crater (Pele’s home!) that ended with a giant electric plug being jammed into a giant receptacle planted on the ground. A leader in the Pele Defense Fund movement later told us the spot’s symbolic plunging of a dagger into Pele’s breast was the trigger that ramped up opposition to geothermal energy on the island. (Mea culpa time: the spot was created on our watch while at HECO.)

All of which is to suggest that if a new attempt is launched to expand geothermal energy’s contribution to the state’s renewable resource inventory, native Hawaiian sensitivities must be respected. Everyone in the state is negatively affected by Hawaii’s dependence on imported oil, and more energy drawn from the Big Island’s subterranean heat resource would benefit us all.

Getting there certainly will depend on the native Hawaiian community benefitting as well as or more than the rest.

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