KULA - The company that has delivered geothermal power to the Big Island for nearly the past 20 years is going to look for a place to create a similar plant on Ulupalakua Ranch land.
Christopher Heaps, a representative of Ormat of Reno, Nev., told Kula residents for the first time publicly that his company would be searching about 8,000 acres of leased ranch land for suitable sites to dig wells that could produce at least two-dozen megawatts a day of energy for the Valley Isle.
If it is able to find a viable drill site and get all the proper government permits, Ormat could break ground on the project as soon as next year, Heaps said. It would provide about 150 construction jobs and another roughly 30 full-time positions.
An audience of about 100 people listens Wednesday night as Christopher Heaps, of the international geothermal energy production company Ormat, presents plans to search for a viable geothermal site on Ulupalakua Ranch land.
DICK MAYER photo
And, Ormat would pay millions in taxes and mineral rights royalties, one-third of which would go to the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs, another third to the state Department of Land and Natural Resources and the final third to Maui County, Heaps said. In addition, the company would assist community needs, such as pay for more security officers in public parks or create a scholarship program, he said.
About 100 Kula residents attended the special meeting hosted Wednesday night by the Kula Community Association.
A few Kula residents, such as Hula Lindsey, said they were skeptical about the project because Heaps said it probably would not reduce their electricity rates even though it is in their backyard.
The Pacific Islands are still dependent on foreign oil, the price of which is at nearly all-time highs, Heaps noted. It's also the state Public Utilities Commission that decides electricity rates, not the companies. The PUC keeps raising rates, too, he said.
"I think it's a great idea, if it works," said Kula Community Association member Kevin Block.
But Heaps warned that although geothermal is green energy with an unlimited supply and virtually no carbon emissions, it still requires drilling. And drilling is always speculative, he said.
"You could be literally throwing your money down a hole," Heaps said.
However, he added: "It's no secret, we know the heat is under our feet, but we don't know where. And is it enough (heat to make lots of electricity)?"
At least 80 percent of geo-thermal projects fail to work, he said.
The Maui project is, in part, made possible by a $5 million U.S. Department of Energy grant, Heaps told the audience.
At this point, Ormat is only willing to promise to develop a three-dimensional model of the region and then drill between two and six test wells, which would probably eat up much of the federal funding, he said.
Those wells are actually only a foot wide but can go down - through hundreds of yards of rock - between 1,200 and 10,000 feet. The average well is about 6,000 feet deep, which is about the depth of the Puna Geothermal Venture, Heaps said.
The company provides electricity to every house in Reno, Nev., with a 28-megawatt plant on as many acres, Heaps said.
Calls and emails seeking further information from Ormat and Ulupalakua Ranch representatives were unsuccessful.
Geothermal has been a controversial alternative energy for Native Hawaiians and Big Island residents. When the 30-megawatt Puna Geothermal Venture was installed on Hawaii two decades ago, "it was almost a war for years," said Ormat's cultural adviser for this project, kahu Charles Kauluwehi Maxwell Sr.
Maxwell said it's a fine line between creating a green energy project that is sustainable and benefits all Maui residents - and a project that would anger the Native Hawaiian community and violate its cultural integrity. That's because, Maxwell said, the final site picked for the well could be in or near ancient burial grounds or archaeological or cave sites.
But Heaps said the actual sites are small; and the company has made great strides over the years in trying to mitigate environmental impacts. For instance, odors have been nearly eliminated, and plant equipment is quieter and farther away from homes.
It also is a closed system, Heaps said. That means that the water is found during the drilling process and is kept in a loop, or reused over and over, to create steam and power the hydroelectric turbines above ground, which produces electricity. The water is not poisoned either, he said.
The entire objective fits in with the state's goal of reaching 40 percent green, or renewable, energy by 2030, he said.
Heaps tried to calm some of the apprehension apparent in the anonymous written questions read to him by association member Dick Mayer. For instance, Heaps said the company responded to a question about road building and said it would be using existing Ulupalakua Ranch roads as well as roads built by the company Sempra, which is developing a wind farm on ranch property.
Mayer said he thinks geo-thermal energy "is a great idea."
"It has the potential to get us off of oil someday," he said.
Heaps also said, that unlike solar or wind power, geothermal runs nonstop, which helps stabilize fluctuations in Maui Electric Co.'s power grid.
Although the search site is 8,000 acres, the actual geo-thermal production facility would be on only about 20-plus acres, and most of that would remain in open space. The plant looks like a combination of a sewage treatment facility and an Army barracks.
To see the company's plants and how they work in places including Hawaii, Nevada,
* Chris Hamilton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.