Honua Ola and Life of the Land square off again

  • KELSEY WALLING/Tribune-Herald Part of the Honua Ola bioenergy plant is seen July 20 in Pepeekeo.

Motions are filed with the Public Utilities Commission on both sides in Honua Ola Bioenergy’s continued legal battle to get the almost-completed 21.5-megawatt biomass power plant in Pepeekeo online.

Honua Ola, formerly known as Hu Honua, has filed a motion for the PUC to reconsider its July 9 order revoking a waiver of the competitive bidding process previously granted to the Pepeekeo power plant’s intended customer, Hawaiian Electric Co. PUC’s order called the waiver “not in the public interest.” The reason given by the regulatory panel is that Honua Ola’s projected sales price of about 22 cents per kilowatt hour to HECO for electricity generated by burning eucalyptus chips is more than double that of two recently approved large-scale solar energy projects.

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The PUC order effectively nixed an amended power purchase agreement between HECO and Honua Ola, which was remanded back to the commission after an appeal by the environmental group Life of the Land resulted in a 5-0 decision by the state Supreme Court vacating the PUC’s decision and order in May 2019.

Honua Ola said the commission’s order “defies logic and the law.”

“At a time when this state desperately needs jobs and investment to revive and diversify the economy, the commission without notice or any due process killed a project that would generate hundreds of jobs and cost nearly $500 million to build,” Honua Ola argued. “The commission’s action casts a dark cloud over all pending and future alternative energy projects in Hawaii, effectively telling investors that this state’s word cannot be trusted. The long-term consequences … will be devastating, not just for alternative energy development, but for the state’s economy as a whole.”

Honua Ola’s motion alleges the PUC’s waiver revocation violates the scope of the high court’s remand, and argued the ruling instructed the PUC “to consider greenhouse gas emissions only and to hold an evidentiary hearing that complies with procedural due process.” The motion also states the commission was legally prevented from reversing its waiver, calling it “an official assurance upon which (Honua Ola) unquestionably had a right to rely.” It added that Honua Ola, “in good faith reliance” on the waiver, “expended substantial sums of money and other resources.”

The motion also said HECO “needs 24/7 firm dispatchable energy” for the state’s mandate to use 100% renewable energy by the year 2045. It called the Honua Ola project “the most viable opportunity to add firm, dispatchable renewable generation in the near term, especially given that the project is 99% complete.”

Honua Ola argued the two solar projects noted in the PUC’s waiver revocation “are not ‘firm’ but intermittent — at best ‘4-hour firm’ sources of energy.”

In its opposition motion, Life of the Land argued that the remanded PUC proceeding “is not limited to greenhouse gas.” The group called Honua Ola’s assertion “a ludicrous argument based on a facial examination of the issues.” The motion added the high court remanded the case to the PUC on the greenhouse gas issue and “the right to a clean and healthful environment.”

Life of the Land also said the Supreme Court’s reliance “on absolutely no findings regarding the propriety of permitting a waiver of the competitive bidding framework in making its decision … did not implicitly affirm the waiver approval.”

“(Honua Ola) is just trying to supplement their record for appeal since the only record they have are now a series of ill-advised demand letters trying to hurry the proceedings to a conclusion,” the group argued.

Life of the Land also quoted a decision from less than a month ago by the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia that said today’s battery storage systems “are quickly becoming industry disrupters because they obliterate a foundational notion underpinning our electrical systems — that electricity cannot be efficiently stored for later use.”

In addition, the project has also generated numerous recent letters to the PUC, both in favor of and in opposition to the panel’s order — meaning in favor of or in opposition to the project going forward. Those submitting testimony in favor include Hawaii Island Chamber of Commerce, International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 142, T&T Electric, state Sen. Lorraine Inouye, who represents the district the project is located, and Michael DePonte, a Hilo based extension agent of the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. Numerous Honua Ola employees also submitted letters.

Donna Domingo, president of ILWU Local 142, referred to the coronavirus pandemic without explicitly mentioning it, saying now “is a difficult and challenging time with an uncertain and likely turbulent future ahead.”

The union’s letter warned, “It would be a travesty to see a project that has spent hundreds of millions of dollars and is 99% complete … be told their operation cannot move forward. More workers will be sent to the unemployment line and investors may reconsider investing in Hawaii.”

Letters in opposition were sent exclusively by private individuals, including Claudia Rohr, a Hilo bed-and-breakfast operator who has filed multiple civil lawsuits opposing the project. Rohr described Honua Ola, on the site of the former Hilo Coast Processing Co., as “wrong scale,” and its converted sugar mill boiler as “outdated technology.”

“As new generation power technology advances, this proposed contract with (Honua Ola) would continue to negatively impact (HECO’s) renewable energy grid and would not be in the best interest of the public,” Rohr wrote.

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No hearing has been set on the motions.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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