PUC seeks updated EIS from Puna Geothermal Venture

  • PGV is shown in January 2020 during recovery from the Kilauea lava flow. (Courtesy photo/PGV)

The state Public Utilities Commission on Wednesday suspended a docket seeking an amended power purchase agreement between Hawaiian Electric and Puna Geothermal Venture, pending the completion of a supplemental environmental review.

According to the March 31 order suspending the docket, public comment from former state Sen. Russell Ruderman in early August urged the PUC to reconsider approval of any PPA, until an environmental impact statement is completed.

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On Sept. 23, 2020, the state Department of Health Office of Environmental Quality Control determined that a new or supplemental environmental review for an air permit renewal was not required.

The following month, three lawsuits were filed in related to that decision.

Hilo Circuit Judge Henry Nakamoto has ruled in favor of PGV in one of those cases.

In a civil suit against the state Department of Health and PGV, plaintiffs Annamarie Kon, Martha “Cory” Harden and Gene Lang Thomas sought an updated environmental impact statement for the geothermal facility before renewal of PGV’s Noncovered Source Permit by DOH’s Clean Air Branch. The plaintiffs alleged the EIS done in 1987 was outdated.

However, a proposed summary judgment order, which hasn’t yet been signed by the judge or any of the parties to the suit, was filed Thursday.

“It is undisputed that PGV’s geothermal facility … was developed decades ago and the potential environmental impacts were disclosed in a 1987 EIS,” the document states.

It is unclear what, if any, effect the ruling will have on the PUC decision.

Under the proposed PPA, the rate paid by the utility to PGV will be fixed and no longer linked to the price of oil.

By eliminating the volatility of oil prices from the rate paid to PGV, the new fixed-price contract will ensure that bills are more stable, Hawaiian Electric said previously. This new pricing arrangement follows guidance provided by the PUC.

As part of the amended agreement, PGV agreed to modify its current facility to provide an additional 8 megawatts of energy and firm capacity, which will further reduce electric bills and the use of fossil fuels to generate electricity.

According to the PUC order, the commission in January contacted OEQC for guidance about whether an environmental review is required for the proposed expansion.

The following month, however, OEQC responded that the PUC itself should determine if an environmental impact statement or supplemental EIS would be required.

According to the order, PGV voluntarily prepared an EIS in 1987, which was approved by Hawaii County.

While the 1987 study would otherwise satisfy environmental review requirements, changes to PGV’s generator proposed in the PPA require a supplemental environmental review, the order states.

“For an EIS to meet its intended purpose, it must assess a particular project at a given location based on an explicit or implicit time frame,” the order said. “The 1987 EIS contemplated a 35-year useful life of PGV’s generator — from 1987 to 2022. The 1987 EIS specifically contemplated decommissioning PGV at the end of its useful life.”

Because the pending application proposes to extend PGV’s useful life until 2052, the PUC order said the previous EIS would not suffice because the length of the agreement, from the date of approval to 2052, extends three decades beyond what is covered by the original EIS.

Significant changes to the scope or intensity of a project also can trigger new or supplemental environmental reviews, independent of the timing factors.

According to the order, the proposal to increase PGV’s maximum generating capacity by replacing 10 existing energy converters with two new, larger converters will expand the power plant’s scope and intensity.

“In summary, the PPA proposes to significantly change the timing, scope, and/or intensity of the original action covered by the 1987 EIS,” the order states. “Pursuant to (state statute), these changes require supplemental environmental review.”

Mike Kaleikini, PGV’s senior director, Hawaii affairs, said Friday the company is reviewing the order and had no further comment regarding the docket’s suspension.

“We will work with PGV, Hawaii Department of Health, Department of Land and Natural Resources and the County of Hawaii to determine the appropriate accepting authority for the review,” said Kristen Okinaka, a spokeswoman for Hawaiian Electric. “We believe the amended contract with PGV can accelerate achievement of Hawaii’s renewable energy goals, help decarbonize electricity and transportation systems, and lower customer bills.”

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Reporter John Burnett contributed to this story.

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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