Greenhouse gas emissions top agenda for Hawaiʻi PUC hearing on $474M Big Island biomass plant
The state Public Utilities Commission this week is reconsidering its approval of the nearly-complete Honua Ola Bioenergy plant in Pepeʻekeo on Hawaiʻi Island.
The four-day hearing seeks to answer two fundamental questions: Will burning wood reduce greenhouse gas emissions? And how much money will this actually save residents on electricity?
Hū Honua, also known as Honua Ola Bioenergy, has invested nearly $500 million into transforming an old sugar mill in Pepeʻekeo into a 21.5-megawatt biomass plant. The company’s president Warren Lee says the plan is to burn woodchips from ready to harvest eucalyptus trees.
"If everything goes with being granted or approved by the Public Utilities Commission by let’s say mid-year, this year," Lee said. "We could be up and running by the end of the year."
Lee says the plant, which is about 99% built, could produce enough energy to power 14,000 homes and displace up to 250,000 barrels of fossil fuel a year. The energy would be purchased by Hawaiian Electric under an agreement between the two companies.
But critics argue the wood-burning facility will increase greenhouse gas emissions because it releases carbon that would otherwise be locked up in trees. Lee contends the company has a plan to be carbon negative by the end of the 30-year power purchase agreement.
"What we’ve proposed in our dockets is that by the year 13 we would be producing power at carbon negative," Lee said. "And over the lifetime of the contract be at least 30,000 tons carbon negative, which means we recapture more carbon through the replanting of trees."
Henry Curtis, executive director of the environmental advocacy group Life of the Land, is skeptical of Lee's argument.
"There are two problems with that. First, the amount of carbon that they are going to put in from burning trees is twice the amount that a coal plant would put out," Curtis told Hawaiʻi Public Radio. "The second issue deals with planting trees. Analysis shows that for the first 20 to 22 years that a tree is planted, it is a net greenhouse gas emitter. It only becomes a sink in its third decade."
Curtis contested the PUC's initial approval of the biomass plant back in 2017 arguing greenhouse gases weren’t taken into account in evaluating the project. The Hawaiʻi Supreme Court agreed and the issue was sent back to the PUC. Hence this week’s hearing.
Curtis says another issue the PUC needs to address this week is the project’s impact on resident utility bills.
"They have this dispute with HECO. Hū Honua says if you open their facility, bills will go down. And HECO says no, your bill is going to go up," Curtis said.
But Lee disputes this.
"We have not changed our pricing to the utility, but what has changed and we don't understand fully why because the pricing at that time was analyzed to save the ratepayers $1.62 a month," Lee said. "However since 2017, things have changed such as the price of fuel."
Higher fuel prices mean more savings. Another factor says Lee is how many kilowatt-hours the utility plans to dispatch to the biomass plant. Fewer hours equal higher rates for residents.
The PUC began hearing arguments Tuesday at 9 a.m. The four-day hearing is streamed on the commission’s YouTube channel.
Disclosure: Honua Ola Bioenergy is an underwriter of HPR.