Honua Ola asks PUC to reconsider decision

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Robert Duyao holds a sign Monday during a press event at Honua Ola in Pepeekeo.

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Danica-Lei Castaneda Petrowski leans on her dad, Derek Petrowski, before he speaks to fellow employees Monday at Honua Ola in Pepeekeo.

Honua Ola Bioenergy has filed a motion requesting that the Public Utilities Commission reconsider an order that could potentially halt its long-delayed power plant project for good.

The motion, which Honua Ola CEO Warren Lee said was filed Monday, requests that the PUC reassess a decision made July 10 that rejected waiving a competitive bidding process between Honua Ola and Hawaiian Electric Co. for a power purchase agreement.

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The PUC argued that waiving the bid process was not in the economic interest of the public, considering two recently approved solar projects on the Big Island are projected to provide energy at cheaper rates.

The plant is projected to generate 21.5 megawatts of power at a projected cost of 22 cents per kilowatt hour by burning eucalyptus chips. More than $350 million already has been invested in the project.

Lee and other Honua Ola supporters held a rally at the biomass power plant in Pepeekeo Monday, where he reassured employees that the company is examining potential next steps to ensure its roughly 60 workers will remain employed.

“(The PUC) aren’t here, they’re in Honolulu. They don’t care,” Lee said. “I believe they don’t know or care about the Big Island at all.”

Lee said the PUC’s decision was “wrong,” saying it had previously approved the waiver twice before during the project’s lengthy life cycle.

Even worse, he said, the project could shut down on the cusp of completion and leave dozens of residents out of work in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, when unemployment earlier this year reached an all-time high. The power plant, Lee said, is “99% complete,” and only needs its cooling water system to be completed before the plant is operational.

Other supporters of the plant spoke at Monday’s rally, including Hawaii Island Chamber of Commerce president — and former Hawaiian Electric spokeswoman — Rhea Lee-Moku, former state Rep. Jerry Chang and KTA Executive Vice President Derek Kurisu.

Lee-Moku said the plant would provide hundreds of jobs and possible careers for Big Island residents, which she said could keep young people from moving away from the island as they grow up.

“This creates futures in Hilo,” Lee-Moku said.

Other speakers at the rally included representatives from the Hawaii Regional Council of Carpenters and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, both of which support the Honua Ola project, along with the Big Island Labor Alliance, because of the jobs and security it can offer in the middle of an economic crisis.

Jaydi Veriato, who has worked at Honua Ola’s environmental health and safety office for 4½ years, said the PUC’s decision, if it stands, will be “devastating” for her and other employees.

“I was angry, hurt, completely lost for words,” Veriato said. “I believe wholeheartedly in what we’re doing. I don’t understand. We’ve been wanting nontourism jobs on the island for years — these are nontourism jobs we’re losing.”

Another employee, instrumentation and electrical technician Derek Petrowski, said he has faith that Honua Ola can pull through after dozens of roadblocks throughout its rocky history, and lauded the company for keeping its workers employed during the pandemic.

“That right there shows me how much they care about their workers,” Petrowski said.

Lee said there is no deadline for the PUC to respond to the motion to reconsider, although he added that, based on its importance, he hopes it will be soon.

Should the motion fail, Lee said he is looking at other options to keep the project going.

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“Doing nothing is not an option,” Lee said.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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