HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The state Supreme Court has dealt another setback to a company building a huge bio-energy plant on the Big Island ― although this wasn’t the company’s fault.
Hu Honua Bioenergy is nearly finished with construction on a facility in Pepeekeo that will burn plant waste to generate electricity.
But on Friday, the state Supreme Court ruled that the Public Utilities Commission abused its discretion and broke the law by failing to take into account potential greenhouse gas emissions during Hu Homua’s application for a purchase power agreement with the electric company.
The appeal came from Life of the Land, which wanted to raise questions about the emissions during the process, but the commission refused.
“This would be the first case that the Public Utilities Commission has to obey the 2011 law that they look at greenhouse gas emissions,” said Henry Curtis of Life of the Land.
“They would be chopping down forests which absorb carbon dioxide. They would be planting saplings, supposedly, that would begin to absorb CO2," said Curtis. “Of course the time lags are very, very different.”
The court ordered the PUC to reopen the power purchase agreement process, which can take many months. The PUC may also be forced to develop a separate protocol for how to analyze and act on greenhouse gas emissions, which also could take some time.
As the process is underway, Hu Honua will be unable to generate electricity. The plans called for it to provide 14 percent of the Big Island’s electricity needs.
“This is unfortunate as we believe the PUC already considered GHG (greehouse gas) emissions when it previously approved the PPA (power purchase agreement with HELCO), since the record contained evidence showing the Hu Honua project, when operating, would result in a net reduction of GHG emissions when compared to GHG emissions without the project,” said Warren Lee, president of Hu Honua, in a statement.
“The Hu Honua project is intended to be a clean, renewable source of firm 24/7 baseload energy that can replace existing fossil fuel plants on Hawaii island,” Lee said. “Unfortunately, this decision will delay bringing more renewable energy to Hawaii island and ultimately prolong the continued GHG emissions from fossil fuel plants.”
Hu Honua has already spent $200 million on its facility, which Lee said is nearly complete.
James Griffin, chairman of the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission, said the ruling is very significant.
“We are evaluating necessary next steps for this matter, as well as for other dockets before the commission," he said.
The high court’s decision could have far-reaching effects on other energy projects that would appear to be environmentally friendly. For example, the Palehua wind farm project in the hills above leeward Oahu could be impacted because of greenhouse gases generated by construction, mainly from the manufacturing of concrete to anchor the massive wind turbine towers.
Hu Honua said that the federal Environmental Protection Agency considers biomass burning as a carbon neutral process. But many remain skeptical.
“The reality is that there are better, cheaper, healthier alternatives than burning biomass in a power plant on this island and in this state,” said Marco Mangelsdorf, president of ProVision Solar in Hilo. He said while he was biased toward solar, he was not a stakeholder since he is not involved in selling large amounts of power to a utility.
“They’d be emitting all this stuff into the atmosphere, and often what is emitted is worse than coal plants, so it doesn’t really pencil out," said Curtis.