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Biomass plant appeals to Hawaii Supreme Court to begin operations

The state Public Utilities Commission had decided that a Big Island bioenergy company hasn't properly addressed environmental concerns about potential greenhouse gas emissions from burning eucalyptus trees for energy.

HONOLULU (CN) — Although Hawaii has been making significant strides in implementing a diverse clean energy portfolio throughout the state with the creation of several solar and wind farms — with the goal of 100% renewable energy by 2045 — other forms of bioenergy have not been as readily welcomed.

For over roughly a decade, Hu Honua Bioenergy has been attempting to begin operations on a eucalyptus tree-burning biomass plant on Hawaii island but has been stymied by environmentalists and the state’s Public Utilities Commission.

Hu Honua, which also does business as Honua Ola, appealed to the state’s Supreme Court Tuesday night, hoping to be given the go-ahead to officially begin operations in collaboration with Hawaiian Electric.

The court heard extensively from Hu Honua, Hawaiian Electric and the utilities commission, as well as environmental advocacy group Life of the Land, Tawhiri Power Company and the Division of Consumer Advocacy from the state Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs.

Both sides emphasized striking a balance between the environmental and financial cost with the energy production.

Last year, the commission rejected Hu Honua’s motion for reconsideration on a previous denial of a power purchase agreement between the bioenergy company and the electricity utility that would have given Hu Honua the green light to officially begin operations, 15 years after it was first established.

In a report from May 2022, the commission determined it "is not convinced that the project will reduce GHG emissions, and has concerns about the potentially significant long-term environmental and public health impact.”

The commission echoed this sentiment during Tuesday’s hearing, claiming that it was justified in its denial, given greenhouse gas concerns, as well as the comparatively high cost of biomass electricity in relation to other cheaper forms of clean energy already in place on the Big Island.

Hu Honua attorney Bruce Voss of Lung Rise Voss & Wagnild said that there was no evidence that net greenhouse gas emissions would be particularly high or disruptive, and argued that the commission's decision was based on speculation about the potential greenhouse gas damage rather than the facts presented by Hu Honua, who have said that they are 99% up to complete operational readiness.

The commission and other Hu Honua opponents argued that it is Hu Honua’s carbon sequestration plan that's speculative.

Commission attorney Mark Kaetsu said Ho Honua adopted a “don’t worry, we’ll get to it” attitude when confronted about the details of its carbon commitment. Life of the Land attorney Chase Livingston claimed Hu Honua stonewalled any attempts for more detail on how the company plans to minimize carbon emissions.

Hu Honua’s power plant, located in Pepe’ekeo several miles north of Hilo, began as a sugarcane plantation in the 19th century that burned plant matter to convert into steam and then electricity for mill operations. As sugarcane production wound down, the site became a coal plant for several years until Hu Honua began making modifications to prepare the plant for biomass processing.

The bioenergy company plans to burn eucalyptus trees to generate power to be sold to Hawaiian Electric for the Big Island which, according to the utility itself, reached 60% renewable energy in 2022 through a mix of primarily solar, wind, and geothermal power.

Although Hu Honua was initially approved by the commission for a power purchase agreement with Hawaii Electric in 2013, they were successfully sued by Life of the Land in 2017. The group continues to stand by the position that the biomass plant would produce dangerous levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

Since then, the issue has waffled between various amendments, remands and appeals, including two other trips to the Supreme Court, leading up to the May 2022 decision by the commission to deny the power purchase agreement.  

The commission determined then that any energy production from the plant would not be offset by its environmental and public health impact. The commission was also concerned that it would be unnecessarily expensive for Hawaii residents, while also displacing other renewable energy projects already in place.

Hu Honua has also maintained that the commission had already had its mind made up from the beginning to deny the power purchase agreement.

“PUC made its decision before the evidence and in spite of the evidence,” Voss said in response to the slate of Hu Honua detractors at the hearing.

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