PUC to HELCO: Work to restore power to PGV requires approval, public hearing

Hawaii Electric Light Co.’s agreement with Puna Geothermal Venture to rebuild power transmission lines and related infrastructure will require state Public Utilities Commission approval and a public hearing.

That’s according to a May 9 letter from the PUC to Kevin Katsura, HELCO’s director of regulatory nonrate proceedings, in response to the Big Island power utility’s rebuild agreement with the geothermal power plant, which was filed March 8 with the regulatory panel.

The agreement specifies PGV will pay HELCO $2.348 million to cover design, procurement and HELCO’s portion of the Pohoiki switching station and related transmission and distribution line repairs to reconnect PGV to HELCO’s grid. That includes reconstruction of two 69-kilovolt transmission lines, one approximately a mile long and another about a mile-and-a-half long.

The PGV facility was partially overrun and some of its infrastructure destroyed by lava last year during the lower East Rift Zone eruption of Kilauea volcano.

The PUC’s letter said that despite HELCO’s plans to reconstruct the lines “in the same general area of the old lines,” the law requires commission approval “to place, construct, erect or otherwise build” the lines.

The commission also quoted a statute requiring a public hearing prior to approval of plans “to place, construct, erect or otherwise build a new 46 kilovolt or greater high-voltage electric transmission system above the surface of the ground through any residential area … .”

The March 8 letter from HELCO to the PUC stated there are two homes within 400 to 500 feet of where the transmission lines are to be construction.

“This proximity to residences means a public hearing is necessary,” the PUC’s letter said.

The commission also provided HELCO with additional feedback related to its ongoing negotiations with PGV regarding a possible amended and restated power purchase agreement, and requested additional status reporting.

The letter said the commission “is not taking a position on whether PGV will, in fact, come back online, but rather is stating that if PGV does come back online, it should be under circumstances that take advantage of this opportunity to benefit HELCO ratepayers” by lowering the costs of electricity.

“We’re keeping the Public Utilities Commission informed and will follow the direction we’re given by the commission,” said HELCO spokeswoman Kristen Okinaka in an email Tuesday.

Earlier this month, Okinaka told the Tribune-Herald that HELCO and PGV are working to restore the geothermal power plant to operational capacity by the end of the year.

“We aren’t anticipating any delay — we plan to stay within the timeline set by PGV for coming back online,” Okinaka said. “Under the rebuild agreement, costs related to the reconstruction of the transmission lines are covered by PGV.”

“Like you, we’ve just gotten that letter, actually, a copy of (PUC’s) letter. It was just to HELCO,” said Mike Kaleikini, PGV’s senior director of Hawaii affairs. “We haven’t determined whether this affects our timeline or not. But that’s what we’re looking at. We’re working closely with HELCO.”

State Sen. Russell Ruderman, D-Puna, Ka‘u, said there are “a lot of concerns in my mind and in the community about whether they ought to restart or not.”

“I think it’s great that they’re having a public hearing, and I think it’s important to consider each step along the way in their restart. I don’t think their restart is a done deal or automatically a good idea, like they’re presenting it,” Ruderman said.

“… Big Island ratepayers will be paying a lot more if they come back online than if they don’t. That has to be considered,” Ruderman said. “I think their track record of safety and lack of safety has to be considered. I think that the big elephant in the room is: Should we be putting important, expensive, critical infrastructure in a location such as this? Are we going to bank our future on this? Are we going to depend on it?

“We saw what can happen there, and there’s no reason it won’t happen again in the next few years.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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