Hawaii has bold plans to completely ditch fossil fuels over the next few decades, but Kilauea’s lava flows have put a wrench in the Big Island’s ability to harness renewable energy from the volcano.
Earlier this week, lava flows entered the grounds of the Puna Geothermal Venture (PGV), a power plant that generates about 25 percent of the island’s power, according to the both the island’s electric company, Hawaii Electric Light, and the state’s Public Utilities Commission.
In anticipation of an unprecedented lava flow into a geothermal plant, the energy facility shut down in early May, and since then has removed flammable chemicals from the site and capped its steaming wells — one of which has already been blanketed in lava.
With the loss of the plant, about 70 percent of the island is now powered by fossil fuels, though Hawaii Electric Light would not comment on exact figures, instead referring us to numbers on its website, which match the state’s 2017 renewable energy report, demonstrating the plant’s sizable contribution to the island’s energy generation.
Geologists say Kilauea’s lava flows could continue for months, and during this time the vulnerable plant will almost certainly remain closed.
“It’s significant for the Big Island,” Mark Glick, an energy policy and innovation specialist at the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute, said in an interview. The institute is a research arm of the University of Hawaii at Manoa that develops renewable energy technologies for the state.
“It’s been the anchor of the renewables’ load for the Big Island,” Glick added.
In 2017, 57 percent of the island’s power came from solar, wind, and geothermal, but over half (31 percent of the island’s total that year) of came from the now-closed geothermal plant. The shortfall, said Glick, is now made up by the island’s fuel burning plants, which largely burn “residual fuel,” which is comprised of the oily leftovers of the refining process.
When burned, this residual fuel produces more heat-trapping carbon pollution than natural gas and gasoline, but less than coal, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
“That’s really what we’ve been trying to rid ourselves of,” said Glick, noting that for much of Hawaii’s modern history, it relied almost entirely upon fossil fuel burning to generate electricity.
“That was a massive mistake,” he said.
Still today, the isolated state spends around $3 billion annually on importing oil, which includes gas for vehicles.
Even without the geothermal plant’s steady production, the Big Island will still be able to produce adequate, though carbon-polluting, power.
“We have sufficient power to provide for the island,” said a Hawaii Electric spokesperson, noting the company’s generators burn residual fuel, but also some diesel. The island won’t be plagued by rolling blackouts, said a spokesperson for Hawaii’s Public Utilities Commission.
This may be a temporary setback for renewable power on the Big Island itself, but the greater state has ambitious plans to completely wean itself from fossil fuels. State law requires 100 percent renewable generation — largely solar and wind — by 2045.
“We’re the only state to have passed such a law,” said Glick.
Most of Hawaii’s population lives on the islands of Oahu, Hawaii, and Maui, and in these places, more than 25 percent of the electricity is produced by renewables today, with solar panels on homes leading the way. Geothermal energy, while of outsized importance on the Big Island, isn’t present elsewhere simply because the Big island is where molten rock brews beneath the Earth.
In an important step, the tropical state plans to power itself by 40 percent renewables in a little over a decade, by 2030. This a big leap, considering that in 2008 imported oil powered 90 percent of the islands.
“That  goal is really crucial — and we’re confident about getting there,” said Glick.
Solar panels installed on peoples homes — which both power homes and can feed excess power into the grid — will be a fundamental part of Hawaii’s renewable future, followed by increasingly affordable wind energy, said Glick. The islands also hope to generate energy from burning biomass and hydroelectricity — such as from rivers.
Geothermal will likely continue to loom large on the Big Island, except for the moments when lava threatens the facility.
“We hope to see geothermal play a role in the future,” said Glick.
Lava flows, however, are an inescapable part of life on Kilauea, a volcano that has been erupting almost continuously since 1983.
Glick hopes the existing wells, dug deep into the ground to access the volcano’s heat, will make it out of Kilauea’s most recent eruption relatively unscathed. Though, humans have little sway over the whims of lava, and where it decides to go.