The state Department of Land and Natural Resources is reviewing applications for two new geothermal wells at Puna Geothermal Venture.
The applications were filed March 1, the department confirmed, and come as PGV moves to resume operations after being isolated by last year’s Kilauea eruption. The permits require approval from DLNR Chairwoman Suzanne Case.
Mike Kaleikini, PGV’s senior director of Hawaii affairs, said the 38-megawatt geothermal power plant still is assessing wells that were covered by lava or plugged during the eruption. He described the applications as a contingency.
“We’re still assessing the conditions of existing wells,” Kaleikini said.
“We just want to be prepared in the event for some reason we need a new well.”
He said DLNR has to approve reuse of existing wells and permits for new well construction. Permits for new wells would be good for one year.
PGV, which aims to restart operations by the end of the year, is allowed to build as many as 28 wells under a plan of operation approved in 2006. It currently has 11 wells — five for injection and six for production — that range in depths of 4,000 feet and 8,000 feet.
While a public hearing isn’t required for the permits, the state Public Utilities Commission is requiring PGV and Hawaii Electric Light Co. to hold a hearing regarding construction of new transmission lines.
A DLNR spokesman said the department has 60 days to review the permit applications, which were resubmitted April 4 after being deemed incomplete.
The plant produced 31 percent of the island’s power and about half of its renewable energy in 2017, according to HELCO. Critics of the state’s only geothermal power plant want to see more steps taken before it resumes operation or builds new wells.
They’ve also questioned whether the plant is needed as two 30-megawatt solar-plus-battery projects are planned for West Hawaii. Utility officials have said they still need geothermal to meet renewable energy goals and because it’s a firm power source.
Bob Petricci, president of Puna Pono Alliance, which is critical of geothermal development, said an environmental impact statement should be done before PGV restarts or builds new wells. He said the group, which also is seeking a contested case hearing for renewal of the plant’s air permit, plans to file a lawsuit regarding that issue.
“We do have concerns,” Petricci said. “It relates to rushing back into an unknown reality with their history in particular. You know the geology is different, the resource has changed. It’s hotter, it’s more fluid.”
He said caution is needed even if there are far fewer homes nearby because of the eruption.
Among their concerns, critics cite PGV’s well blowout in 1991 that caused uncontrolled venting for 31 hours.
The last gas release was in 2014 when the plant’s transmission lines were severed during Tropical Storm Iselle, prompting it to shut down.
PGV maintains gas amounts during that release were small, about 100 pounds of hydrogen sulfide, and that employees on site suffered no ill effects, though some nearby residents who were unable to leave at the time claim they were impacted.
In comparison, sulfur dioxide emissions from Kilauea climbed to more than 50,000 metric tons per day during the eruption.
Critics say more monitoring is needed to know how much gas is released by PGV during those events.
While assessments of the wells are ongoing, Kaleikini referred to the progress as “promising.”
“The rigs are set up removing the plugs as we speak,” he said.
Some of the fissures erupted on the edge of PGV’s property.
Kaleikini said that may lead to more underground heat, but he doesn’t think they are at risk of tapping into the magma dike based on the location of the fissures.
PGV encountered a pocket of magma while drilling in 2005. Kaleikini said the molten rock, left from past eruptions, solidified in the hole.
“It’s not like you have a big gusher,” he said.
Assessments of existing wells have shown the geothermal resource is about 50 degrees hotter than it was before the eruption, Kaleikini said, but still cooler than when PGV began operations nearly 30 years ago.
Puna Pono Alliance’s demand for an EIS will include a request many might find controversial.
In addition to assessing impacts the eruption might have had on PGV, Petricci said the group wants it to also determine whether PGV impacted the eruption itself.
He said he doesn’t think it caused the eruption but that it might have had something to do with its intensity.
“I’m not saying that’s what happened,” Petricci said, adding that, “If you look at the line of fissures right along the line of PGV’s boundary,” that raises questions.
The Hawaiian Volcano Observatory debunked claims from some geothermal opponents that PGV could somehow have caused the eruption in a “Volcano Watch” article in April. It said there is no credible model that connects geothermal operations to the eruption, noting the migration of magma started miles away at Pu‘u ‘O‘o.
“Impacts of the LERZ eruption were devastating, but the reason for the lava flow is no simpler than the fact that we live on an active volcanic island,” HVO said. “What happened in 2018 is part of Kilauea’s natural process and was not influenced by human actions.”
But even that statement hasn’t put the issue to bed.
State Sen. Russell Ruderman raised similar comments and questions as Petricci during a discussion regarding the future of the plant last month on PBS Hawaii.
“Are we going to move forward before answering the question: Did this activity contribute at all to the nature and intensity of last year’s eruption?” Ruderman, D-Puna, Ka‘u, said on the program. He noted he doesn’t think PGV caused the eruption but thinks it might have had an impact.
Kaleikini, who participated in the discussion, said he thought Ruderman’s question was absurd. He attributed it to misunderstanding of PGV’s process.
“We know our process,” he said. “For people not to do their homework, to really find out how the process really works in PGV, and to be able to make statements out there … to me that’s irresponsible. That’s borderline fear-mongering.”
In an email, Ruderman said it would be “unscientific” to dismiss these claims without investigating them. He said he hasn’t talked to HVO about his concerns but is creating a “summary for state agencies to urge them to look anew at the changed situation.”
PGV is located on Kilauea’s lower East Rift Zone, and the line of 24 fissures from Leilani Estates to upper Kapoho was not unprecedented in recent history, according to HVO.
“In 1955, Kilauea Volcano erupted in the lower Puna district on the Island of Hawaii for 88 days,” Janet Babb, HVO spokeswoman and geologist said in an email. “The outbreak began on February 28, and was the first eruption in an inhabited area on Kilauea since 1840. During the eruption, at least 24 separate volcanic vents opened up and down the volcano’s East Rift Zone, with lava flows covering about 3,900 acres of land.”
That was followed by another lower East Rift Zone eruption in 1960 that destroyed the village of Kapoho. PGV began operations in the early 1990s.
Babb added that the 1840 eruption that migrated to the East Rift Zone was of similar intensity.
“The lava that erupted in 1840 from the lowest fissure at Kaohe Homesteads advanced to the ocean (distance of 9 miles) in 3 days, through what is now Nanawale Estates,” she said. “By comparison, the 2018 fissure 8 lava advanced to the ocean (distance of 8 miles) in more than a week. The 1840 eruption lasted for about 30 days while the 2018 eruption was most active for 3 months.”
While acknowledging the rift zone is inherently unstable, Petricci said he thinks that PGV reinjecting the condensed steam into the ground through injection wells could have weakened the rock and aided the flow of magma, and compared it to the impacts of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, on earthquakes.
“I don’t think that’s a conspiracy theory,” he said. “If you look at the science, it’s a science question.”
Kaleikini said PGV doesn’t do fracking.
“We drill and we look for naturally permeable zones,” he said.
HVO officials have not noted any correlation between PGV and seismic activity during the plant’s history.
As additional questions are being raised, Tina Neal, HVO scientist-in-charge, said in an email that geologists are “reviewing and preparing a summary of observations regarding questions about PGV and the 2018 eruption.”