debunking geothermal myths By Tiffany Edwards Hunt
The geothermal issue ignited in the last campaign season, and has been raging since then, particularly in Puna, where the Ormat owned Puna Geothermal Venture has called home since the early 1990s.
Controversy about geothermal gained so much traction that a geothermal working group formed and a $50,000 geothermal public health assessment was initiated.
PGV’s senior director for Hawaiian affairs Mike Kaleikini and Ormat public relations manager Heidi Bethel visited with Big Island Chronicle recently to discuss the geothermal public health assessment directed by Peter Adler, and some of the findings and recommendations that his report offered. Kaleikini and Bethel also made an effort to “debunk” what they described as “geothermal myths” that have erupted in the course of the geothermal controversy.
Kaleikini noted that, while he was not a member of Adler’s study group, he did participate and attend all the meetings held.
“We welcome this report, we support this report,” Kaleikini said, adding, “There were several things mentioned does shed a negative light on us. Our point is we’ve been in compliance all these years and we will continue to be in compliance. We don’t want to contaminate the ground water. We don’t want to willingly do emissions, etc. We have employees here, and we want to take care of them… in the course, the community is in safe hands.”
Among Adler’s recommendations:
A health study; a new Hawaii Fire Department air monitoring equipment; improved air monitoring; water monitoring to determine whether or not any groundwater contamination is occurring with the reinjection process; and possible remediation of the old HGP-A geothermal test site.
Kaleikini doesn’t object to anyone of them.
“I fully support — if something is affecting us at ground zero, we want to make sure we address them,” Kaleikini said. “We are in compliance with the requirements that we have to date.”
PGV has no objection to additional monitoring, he said.
He noted that “in the big picture,” geothermal is a simple process. Imagine a conventional power plant, like one used to generate electricity for HELCO. Fossil fuel is used to generate electricity. Oil is burned to heat water, and the water turns to steam to turn a turbine.
“With geothermal, we use the heat of the earth to transfer that heat energy into a working fluid, which turns the turbines,” Kaleikini said.
He noted that geothermal has been around since the 1800s. The technology is mature, at the same time that it is still evolving.
“Everything, all the heat from the ground comes up in a form of steam and hot water. We use the heat to generate electricity. And the cooled geothermal fluids are returned back to the ground.”
He noted at least one “myth” that has been circulating, regarding heavy metals or what has been demonized as “poisons.”
There are “very stringent” county, state and federal rules associated with permits from the different agencies, Kaleikini said. In the DOH air permit, it states that PGV needs to test for certain chemicals.
“That is where some people jumped on the issue of heavy metals,” Kaleikini said. “Because all that is naturally occurring in geothermal heat that is here… DOH requires we sample and test that on a regular basis. As with anything else, it’s the dosage that makes the poison. People don’t know the dosage, they see lead, they see arsenic… they see those words… they don’t understand you cannot detect it naturally, you’ve got to send it to a high-tech lab.”
“What we test for is naturally occurring,” Kaleikini said. “The concentrations that we have here are low levels… If you go back to the health study, one study could look at the dosages… because that could help people understand the relative concentration and risk for exposure, which we are confident is very, very low…”
People have also been honing in on the fact that PGV reinjects liquids. “It’s a grain of sand compared to the volcano,” he said.
Kaleikini described the reinjection process in detail.
“When we construct or when we drill an injection well, the process is all totally predicated on protection of the environment — the air, the groundwater…When we drill an injection well, it’s between 6,000 and 8,000 feet deep. We are 800 feet above sea level. What that means is the groundwater in this area is 800 feet deep from where we’re at. In our case, we consider protection down to 4,000 feet. That is way over and above — usually the water lens may be 100 feet to 200 feet, so, technically, if we just went down to 1,000 feet, we would be confident that we’re protecting the groundwater.” He noted it’s protected by steel casing and cement…
“When we start off drilling a hole, the first section is a 42-inch hole and it goes down to 100 feet… inside of that is a 30-inch steel pipe all the way down to 100 feet… external to the ground… the space between, is filled in the cement.
“The next section would be a 26-inch hole down to 1,000 feet,” Kaleikini said. “Inside of there is 22-inch steel casing down to 1,000 feet. The external space between the steel and the ground is filled in with cement… inside of the 22-inch casing is an 18-inch hole down to 2,000 feet… inside of the18-inch hole is a 16-inch casing down to 2,000 feet… the space between is cemented…
“Now, if you can picture this, there is steel and cement down to 1,000 feet, and another layer of cement and steel down to 2,000 feet. The next section is a 14-inch hole and 11-inch casing to 5,000 feet. (Below 5,000 feet, there is an open hole, with no casing and cement.)
“It’s kinda like a folded out telescope,” Kaleikini said. “What’s protecting the groundwater are six layers, three layers of concrete and three layers of steel… And we’re going to protect it even further.
“In addition to all this, we have this 11-inch casing that comes up to the surface, and we install a hang-down liner.” That 9-inch hang-down liner extends from the surface down to about 4,000 feet.”
And the pipe that is installed down to 4,000 feet is steel, and it’s corrosion- and H2S-resistant. As for the space between the outside of hang-down liner and inside of cement casing, “in that space, we charge it up with nitrogen,” Kaleikini said. “The pressure in this space is higher than the pressure of the reinjection… the fluids going back into the injection zone… We monitor this nitrogen pressure on a continuous basis. It’s tied into computer system… the pressure is a calculated amount, so that it will go all the way to 3,000 feet.
“Injection fluid is going into 9-inch casing… it will have to go through liner to affect nitrogen monitoring. If the nitrogen pressure lowers, there is an indication of a leak,” Kaleikini said, adding, “we’d rather have it leak inside of the liner than outside into the groundwater.”
Kaleikini noted that, annually, PGV is required to conduct specific surveys to prove that the mechanical process is intact.
“We pump up the level of nitrogen and insert a tool that is called a Pressure and Temperature Survey tool… when we pump up nitrogen, we record over a certain period of time. If it does not leak, then it passes the test,” Kaleikini said. “The Pressure and Temperature Survey is a tool that is commonplace when you do drilling because, especially in geothermal, when you put this tool into geothermal well, you end up with a grasp of pressure and temperature compared to depth… as you go deeper… there are higher temperatures and higher pressure. (Say, 600 degrees Fahrenheit).
When a well is completed, there is a baseline survey, and then there are annual comparisons to indicate any changes “down hole,” as Kaleikini describes it.
Once every seven at eight years PGV will have a leak or indication of a breech, Kaleikini said, adding, “Three times in 20 years, it has been the liner that failed.”
“What would happen is the nitrogen would leak into the liner. It’s never the casing that has been compromised… We have never had any casings compromised. It’s always the liner.”
All the information collected at PGV — all the testing results — is submitted to technical experts at DLNR, at the DOH safe drinking water branch, and at EPA region 9 drinking water branch.
They look at the stats from the Pressure and Temperature Survey at a minimum of once a year. Plus, they look at the results of what PGV calls “mechanical integrity testing.”
PGV has four injection wells. Three of them have been in existence for the duration of the plant’s life, 20 years, and the last injection well was drilled in 2005.
As for the noise and vibration noted in Adler’s geothermal health assessment, Kaleikini pointed out that noise is also regulated at PGV.
The state of Hawaii didn’t have any noise regulations until 1996. When the predecessor to Ormat first developed the geothermal plant, the County imposed noise regulations, specifically requiring the plant not to exceed 55 decibels in the daytime and 45 decibels at night.
“The challenge was — in the daytime facility could meet the 55 decibels, but, because the facility is a baseload facility, and it runs at a certain level consistently — nighttime didn’t change much. The challenge was to meet 45 decibels,” said Kaleikini.
The original geothermal developer got the best available technology and did all sorts of noise deductions, including ensuring that the piping was insulated with different materials including metal sheeting. Certain components were redesigned to reduce noise. And it was an ongoing process to comply with the County permit, according to Kaleikini.
Then, in 1996, the state came out with noise regulations for different areas — rural, industrial or agriculture, depending on the land use designation, had all different noise regulations.
For agricultural areas, such as that in which PGV is located, the maximum noise level could not exceed 70 decibels.
Kaleikini noted that, even after the state’s noise regulations were established, PGV “didn’t drop the ball.”
“We still respect the noise levels,” he said. “The noise is definitely something we are very aware of. When we drill, it is true, there is additional noise. We go out and make announcements to the community and apologize for the inconvenience.
He noted that PGV has new equipment that represents the latest technology that Ormat designed and manufactured. “It’s a big difference from the original technology. We are very cognizant of noise.”
As for people’s fears of the industrialization of Puna, Kaleikini stressed that the talk that there are “20 developers ready to drill” is just plain “inaccurate.”
“The fact is, there is no-behind-the-scene development initiative,” Kaleikini said. “It’s not easy to develop.”
He noted that PGV has gone from 25 megawatts in 1993 to 38 megawatts today — an increase by 13 megawatts.
“The myth of 1,000 megawatts, no way,” Kaleikini said.
“The government controls that are in place — at the state level, an EIS, an EA — it’s not simple to do development here. It’s tough doing business here,” Kaleikini said, adding, “We don’t have any projects being proposed.”
As for the claim that PGV intends to sell electricity off the island, “that is totally inaccurate. There is no way to get electricity off the island.”
An undersea cable to Oahu? “We are not cable company guys. We generate electricity,” Kaleikini said.
As for the circulating claim that residents had no say in the establishment of the Puna geothermal plant, Kaleikini urges people to “go into Planning Department — there are many documents, records, there was a lot of community input on this whole process.”
And, regarding fracking, Bethel, of Ormat, weighed in.
“From our perspective, we can only talk about what Ormat is doing,” Bethel said. “We had an r & d project in Nevada on enhanced geothermal systems. It’s completely different than fracking… Basically we are shifting existing fractures. We are not creating anything new. We are merely shifting, in order to enhance permeability and hopefully be able to increase our injection. It’s a very early stage r & d project… We have no plans to do this in Hawaii… the resource there is amazing… It’s very, very productive and very good permeability. For this reason alone, future EGS development is deemed unnecessary for this location (in Puna).”
Is Ormat planning to expand in Hawaii?
“First and foremost we are a geothermal developer,” Kaleikini said. “We are always looking for opportunity. But we don’t have anything in the works beyond what we have here — and Maui, we are interested in locating a geothermal resource on Maui.”
PGV does have permits allowing the plant to expand to 60 megawatts, Kaleikini added.
It’s public knowledge that PGV was among six companies that responded to HELCO’s request for proposal for more geothermal development here.
But neither Kaleikini nor Bethel would discuss the proposal because it’s proprietary and HELCO has yet to select the winning bid.
As for the geothermal health assessment Adler conducted, it’s 203 pages and it can be viewed here:
In next month’s edition, BIC will get into more details about the assessment, interviews members of the study group, and and discuss steps the County of Hawaii is taking to respond to it.
Tiffany Edwards Hunt is the editor and publisher of Big Island Chronicle.