A year after Kilauea Volcano eruption, power poles at Puna geothermal plant are still ‘smoldering’

Four wooden power poles installed by Hawaii Electric Light Co. several weeks ago along a new road opened by the Puna Geothermal Venture are “smoldering” due to residual heat from last year’s Kilauea Volcano eruption.

Three of PGV’s wells were covered by lava during the eruption, and current ground temperatures in some areas of the eruption have measured as high as 350 to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

HELCO plans to replace the smoldering poles in the coming week with specially insulated steel poles that are better able to withstand the heat, according to a utility spokesman.

In a letter Monday to the Public Utilities Commission, Joseph Viola, Hawaiian Electric Co. vice president for regulatory affairs, said HELCO installed 13 power poles, 60 to 65 feet tall, and electrical lines that would restore power to PGV and supply power to HELCO’s grid.

HELCO’s immediate plan was to restore power to PGV and about 30 neighboring homes that survived the eruption. The company has crews working at the geothermal plant in an effort to resume power generation by the end of this year.

However, the PUC advised HELCO in a letter earlier this month that it needed commission approval to rebuild those power lines because they will follow a new alignment along a road PGV has opened to restore access to the plant.

Viola said HELCO had already installed the 13 power poles, transmission lines, distribution lines and other equipment before it received that letter from the PUC. The lines have not been energized, and HELCO stopped work on the lines immediately after receiving the PUC letter, according to Viola.

In the meantime, HELCO discovered the “emergency safety concern” that is the smoldering new poles, and told the commission it needs to fix that problem immediately.

Jim Kelly, Hawaiian Electric Co.’s vice president for corporate relations, said the overheating poles will be replaced by new steel poles that will be 70 to 75 feet tall and treated with special thermal paint. Each pole will also be wrapped with insulation and surrounded by a special thermal backfill to help dissipate heat.

“We learned some things from the rebuilding work we did after the 2014 lava flow in Pahoa that we’ll put to use on this project,” Kelly said. That 2014 flow also damaged utility lines and almost reached the main road through Pahoa village before stopping.

Kelly said the utility hopes to have service restored to PGV and its neighbors in the next two to three months.

PGV has uncovered one of the three wells that was buried by lava, and hopes to use existing wells to restart the plant. The company says its generating equipment at the plant is intact, but PGV needs to reconstruct three air quality monitoring stations.

The PGV plant has a contract to provide up to 38 megawatts of power to HELCO. When it shut down because of the eruption, that amounted to 29% of the entire power generation on Hawaii island.

A year after Kilauea Volcano eruption, power poles at Puna geothermal plant are still ‘smoldering’
May 22, 2019, By Kevin Dayton, Honolulu Star-Advertiser

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