HILO — 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.
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 Puu Oo.
Email Tom Callis at email@example.com.