Geothermal Development in Hawaii, or Not: Some Observations

Geothermal Education Office
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Geothermal Education Office

BY JAMES WEATHERFORD – Staunchest advocates of geothermal development in Hawaii make a leap of blind faith straight from the obvious – the state’s dependency on imported petroleum – to the not-at-all-obvious – that extensive geothermal development for generation of electricity is the only alternative that will deliver us from the unsustainable status quo: “Geothermal! The only way!”

Staunchest opponents of geothermal development in Hawaii acknowledge zero conditions under which any geothermal development can be acceptable: “No Geothermal! No way!”


In any situation, it is always helpful to find something on which there is wide consensus. In the matter of energy development in Hawaii, there is very wide consensus that the status quo of reliance on imported petroleum is not OK. Nevertheless, it remains unclear how geothermal electricity generation would substantially change that status quo and there has not been sufficient comparison of alternatives to imported petroleum.

The state’s energy data indicate that more than half of the petroleum consumption in Hawaii is for transportation and about one third is for electricity generation. Moreover, sixty percent of the petroleum used to generate electricity is ‘residual fuel oil’ – a low-cost product remaining after refining of jet fuel, gasoline, and diesel fuel from crude oil, and only one percent of this ‘residual fuel oil’ is imported to the state.

This low-cost ‘residual fuel oil’ will be with us as long as transportation in Hawaii is reliant on imported petroleum. Without far-reaching changes to the state’s transportation system, geothermal development has only a modest contribution to make in reducing Hawaii’s dependence on petroleum imports.(

It is necessary to fully and fairly compare any and all reasonable alternatives. To do this in the case of replacing imported petroleum in Hawaii requires that all costs and benefits — direct and indirect, private and social, environmental and financial — be fully, fairly, and openly considered for all fuels that can be produced in Hawaii to replace petroleum imports. The distribution, not just the quantity, of costs and benefits must be minded – for example, putting the social and environmental costs on one community or island to provide financial benefit to another is not acceptable. Furthermore, this cost and benefit comparison must include a frank assessment of the risk of reliance on any single energy source versus diversification.

Claims are made that geothermal is “clean”, “safe” and “cheap”. The geothermal experience in Puna does not support these claims.

Because geothermal development in Puna has not been clean and safe, the community has been traumatized from the outset of geothermal development in the district – release of poisonous gasses, evacuations, noise, and degradation of fragile rain forest environment. This trauma is very real and could well result in unreasonable negative perceptions towards any and all geothermal development.

If geothermal energy is indeed low-cost, that financial benefit has not been passed on to electric rate payers on Hawaii Island.

Would-be geothermal developers who do not live near proposed geothermal development sites must not be blind to the grave injustices committed in the past and must acknowledge that the large and growing number of people living in close proximity to the existing geothermal site have legitimate cause for concerns about further geothermal development in their community.

The manner in which geothermal development has taken place in Hawaii thus far is not a model for future geothermal development in Hawaii or anywhere else.

At best, geothermal development in Hawaii since the early 1980’s offers a multitude of lessons learned about how not to proceed in Hawaii or anywhere else. These negative lessons learned include siting of large-scale facilities in very close proximity to residential neighborhoods, absence of meaningful and sustained community consultation and oversight, and release of toxins into the environment on multiple occasions over a long period of time with minimal monitoring.

It is not sufficient to simply point to Iceland or New Zealand or the Philippines or anywhere else and say, “They do it there, so we can do it here.” While there may well be valuable lessons to be learned from experiences of geothermal development in other places, no two places are alike.

For example, each proposed geothermal development site must be considered for its uniqueness in terms of economic needs, available options for alternative energy development, social and cultural implications, population density, environmental sensitivity, and geological formation. If further geothermal development is to take place in Hawaii, it must be done specifically and only in terms of what it means in the context of the specific site at which it is proposed.

Geothermal? The only way? No geothermal? No Way?

Definitely no more of the same old way!

Is there another way? To be respectful. To ask. To be grateful

James Weatherford is a Candidate for Hawaii County Council – District 4, which includes the areas of Pohoiki, Leilani Estates, Nanawale Estates, Kapoho, Waa Waa, Hawaiian Beaches, Hawaiian Shores, Hawaiian Paradise Park, Makuu Homesteads makai of highway 130, Pahoa makai of Pahoa Village Road. More on the web at





  1. As long as the state government and the energy monopoly are involved in alternative energy opportunities, residents will never see a financial benefit.

    When it comes to making Hawaii a better place for all to live and work, the legislature has done nothing but fail miserably.

    Geothermal is as safe as just about any other means of energy production we have. Build new geotherm plants and shut down the obsolete plants that have been a boondoggle since their inception.

    One way to almost guarantee the success of geotherm power is keep HECO and it’s subsidiaries out of it.

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