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Haleakala geothermal energy plan progresses

(The Maui News)  Drilling could begin next year on test wells for a geothermal energy project on Haleakala.

Ormat Technologies Inc. filed an environmental impact statement preparation notice with the Board of Land and Natural Resources last month, signaling its intention to go ahead with the project it announced in 2011.

If the study finds no significant environmental or cultural impact for the project, land board members could then move forward with granting Ormat a mining lease and "geothermal resource subzone modification application."

Company officials announced last year that they'd partnered with Ulupalakua Ranch on the project that could generate around 24 megawatts of electricity daily to sell to Maui Electric Co.

The systems tap into an underground water source for a circular, enclosed steam power system constructed at a depth of 6,000 feet below the surface of the Earth. Ormat plans to probe a 5,315-acre swath of Ulupalakua pasture both above and below Piilani Highway to search for the right combination of heat and water.

Officials with Ulupalakua Ranch, the Department of Land and Natural Resources and Ormat could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

The aboveground footprint for a geothermal plant could be about the size of two warehouses on a 20-acre lot, which would also include utility poles, transformers and transmission lines.

Ormat has previously said that the project could generate around 150 construction jobs and 30 full-time positions, but the notice filed with the land board notes that employment could depend on the type of plant that ends up being built.

MECO has struggled to expand into more renewable energy while maintaining a grid that can handle the fluctuations of sources such as solar and wind farms.

Ormat has said that geothermal is an attractive alternative because it provides a more stable flow of power to the grid.

The company has said it also intends to share royalties with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the county and a scholarship program.

Ormat operates 19 geothermal plants worldwide, generating more than 1,200 megawatts of power combined. That includes Hawaii's only geothermal plant, the 20-year-old, 30-megawatt Puna plant on the Big Island.

"Geothermal has a long history in Hawaii," states the company's filing. It notes that in ancient times, Native Hawaiians used volcanic steam to cook food; and that King David Kalakaua even "inquired of Thomas Edison in 1881 about making geothermal electricity on the Big Island and transporting it to Oahu through an undersea cable."

Ormat met with the Kula Community Association to present its project last May and with the University of Hawaii Maui College's Sustainable Living Institute a month later.

The company would need around 10 additional county, state and federal approvals to proceed with development, according to the report.

Ormat has noted that, a portion of the time, exploratory drills are not able to find a suitable location for a geothermal plant. Officials have said that they have enough funding to attempt between two and six test wells.

However, "Ormat's initial exploratory studies indicate the potential for a commercially usable geothermal resource in the area," the report states.

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Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative