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Hawaiʻi Supreme Court ruling means no energy production for Big Island biomass plant

1 HonuaOla Pano.jpg
Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi
Hawaiʻi Public Radio
Hū Honua Bioenergy, also known as Honua Ola, has been seeking approval for its 21.5-megawatt biomass plant in Pepeʻekeo from the Hawaiʻi Public Utilities Commission.

The Hawaiʻi Supreme Court unanimously ruled against Hū Honua, also known as Honua Ola Bioenergy, on Monday in its dispute with the Public Utilities Commission.

The court upheld the PUC's decision to deny a power purchase agreement between the company and Hawaiian Electric. The PUC said approving the plant would not be in the best interests of the public.

The PUC previously approved an agreement but reversed that verdict because of several factors. Those included questioning whether the wood-burning plant would be carbon neutral as the company claimed, as well as the expectation that the operation would raise the average consumer’s electricity bill by more than $10 a month.

The court said in part, "The reality is that yesterday’s good enough has become today’s unacceptable. The PUC was under no obligation to evaluate an energy project conceived of in 2012 the same way in 2022. Indeed, doing so would have betrayed its constitutional duty."

honua ola wood piles
Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi
A wood pile at Honua Ola Bioenergy plant in Pepeʻekeo.

The environmental advocacy group Life of the Land contested the PUC's approval of an amended power purchase agreement in 2017, arguing greenhouse gases were not taken into account in evaluating the project.

The Supreme Court agreed and the issue was sent back to the PUC, which then reversed its decision in 2022, prompting Honua Ola to appeal — eventually, sending it back to the Supreme Court.

The plant in Pepeʻekeo, about 10 miles north of Hilo, has nearly been completed. Honua Ola has invested about $500 million into transforming the old sugar mill into a 21.5-megawatt biomass plant.

Warren Lee, president of Honua Ola, said, “We are disappointed with the Court’s decision which effectively prevents Honua Ola from providing much-needed 24/7 clean renewable energy that would immediately replace dirty fossil fuel-based energy for the Big Island. Honua Ola is now fully constructed in accordance with the PUC’s previous orders approving the project in 2013 and again in 2017."

Honua Ola said it is "evaluating its options going forward."

Disclosure: Honua Ola Bioenergy is an underwriter of HPR.

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