Mayors Race Erupts on Big Island Over Geothermal

Sophie Cocke/ Civil Beat

Harry Kim says he was looking forward to the quiet life — retiring and being a grandfather. The two-time Big Island mayor had left the county in the hands of his protege, Billy Kenoi.

But a renewed push to construct power plants along volcanic rifts brought the 72-year-old out of retirement.

"I'm in support of the development of geothermal," Kim told Civil Beat. "But it must be right from the position of the people and the environment."

At one time, there was intense interest in geothermal. But state plans were shelved after heated community opposition chased out one developer and prompted the state to abandon large-scale development plans in the 1990s.

But now the state and electric utilities are taking a hard second look at tapping the underground heat source to power not only the Big Island’s electricity needs, but the state’s, too.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie recently signed legislation that expedites geothermal development. And HECO's plans to issue a request for proposals for 50 megawatts of geothermal energy for the Big Island by the end of this year. It's already generating interest from numerous companies, including Puna Geothermal Venture, the state's only sole geothermal company in the state, which is looking to expand production. Innovations Development Group is also vying for development rights. That company includes Mililani Trask, a well-known Native Hawaiian activist who in decades past was one of geothermal's most vocal opponents.

Kenoi, who worked for Kim as his executive assistant, was sanguine about the news of his predecessor's run when Civil Beat caught up with him at a recent unveiling of a biodiesel plant on the Big Island.

“All I can say is that I have nothing but love, aloha and respect for Harry Kim,” he said. “He was my football coach when I was eight years old. I look up to him like a second father. And his decision to run based on geothermal is a state issue and his disagreement is with, supposedly, the direction of the Department of Land and Natural Resources and the governor, as he’s stated.”

But for the loquacious, 43-year-old mayor, known for his humor and exuberant personality, it's meant a redoubling of efforts to retain his seat.

Kenoi said he and his campaign have had to resort to throwing double shakas — not just the one.

He's been a strong supporter of renewable energy on the Big Island.

"We have to continue to push for renewable energy," he said. "We cannot continue to depend on fossil fuels. And we have to utilize the incredible assets that we have. Hawaii Island, Hawaii County, has a responsibility because we have such a vast array of renewable energy to continue to push forward in a collaborative way."

A Moving Target

During the past few years, there's been growing grass-roots support for geothermal development on the Big Island.

Trask's backing was widely seen by people in the energy sector as a sign of a sea change in local attitudes toward geothermal, particularly in the Native Hawaiian community where there has been past opposition based on religious and cultural reasons.

The Geothermal Working Group, which included community leaders from the Big Island, including Richard Ha, owner of Hamakua Springs Country Farms, also released a report last year in strong support of moving aggressively ahead with geothermal. This includes plans to tap the resources on the Big Island and bring the energy to neighbor islands via undersea cables.

But the increased political jockeying around the issue of future development by the top mayoral candidates suggests that politicians are navigating an increasingly diverse landscape of public opinion. And while the race isn't dividing along pro- and anti-geothermal factions, candidates are battling it out to show who is the best at making sure geothermal drilling and exploration is done in a pono way.

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