Hawaii Supreme Court rejects Big Island bioenergy plant
Rate hikes and massive amounts of greenhouse gases from a proposed biomass burning power plant would outweigh any benefits, the court found.
by Candace Cheung, Court House News, March 14, 2023
HONOLULU (CN) — The Hawaii Supreme Court has once again blocked a bioenergy company’s decade-long bid to kick off operations for a renewable biomass plant on Hawaii’s Big Island, upholding the Public Utilities Commission rejection of a power purchase agreement between Hu Honua Bioenergy and Hawaiian Electric Company.
“The PUC understood its public interest-minded mission. It faithfully followed our remand instructions to consider the reasonableness of the proposed project’s costs in light of its greenhouse gas emissions and the project’s impact on intervenor Life of the Land’s members’ right to a clean and healthful environment,” Supreme Court Justice Todd Eddins wrote in a Monday ruling.
The commission and other detractors fought against the eucalyptus-burning power plant, saying the company hasn’t properly answered for potential environmental and public health risks associated with the massive amounts of harmful carbon dioxide that would be released by the project or addressed the potential in increased energy costs for Big Island residents.
Although the power purchase agreement was initially approved by the commission in 2013, opposition from environmental group Life of the Land stymied operations, prompting years of contentious litigation all the way to the Supreme Court thrice.
The latest clash between the parties resulted from a May 2022 report from the commission that determined the bioenergy company has been unable to provide a sufficient proposal for how they plan to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions generated from the wood burning.
The decision comes after a February appeal from Hu Honua Bioenergy and Hawaiian electric against the commission, Life of the Land, the already operational renewable Tawhiri Power Company, and the state Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs.
The court ultimately found Hu Honua’s plan for carbon sequestration unconvincing.
“The reality is that yesterday’s good enough has become today’s unacceptable,” Judge Eddins wrote. “The PUC was under no obligation to evaluate an energy project conceived of in 2012 the same way in 2022.”
Hu Honua’s power plant, originally a sugarcane processing plant located in Pepe’ekeo several miles north of Hilo, intends to burn eucalyptus trees to generate power to be sold to Hawaiian Electric. By the company’s own estimation, this would generate over 8 million metric tons of carbon emissions over 30 years.
Hu Honua then proposed to offset these massive amounts of greenhouse gases by planting trees — enough trees, the company postulated, that the project could become not only carbon neutral, but carbon negative. Eddins dismissed the company’s argument that its operations ought to be weighed only against fossil fuel emissions.
“If the PUC couldn’t consider Hu Honua’s relative impacts and the likelihood that it would supplant other renewable projects, it would be forced to treat a project expected to emit millions of metric tons of carbon as no different from a project expected to emit almost no carbon, merely because both draw on renewable energy sources,” he wrote.
Hu Honua has maintained it remains completely ready to begin operations while keeping with both its carbon neutrality and affordability promises.
Hu Honua president Warren Lee expressed disappointment in the decision. “We believe this decision sets back Hawai’i’s renewable energy transition and results in Big Island residents having to continue to pay high energy rates mostly based on expensive fossil fuel oil, while increasing the likelihood of grid instability and more blackouts," Lee said in a statement.
Hu Honua’s legal team, led by Honolulu attorney Bruce Voss, had also taken issue with the commission addressing a potential $10.97 price increase for consumers. The court called this argument “difficult to understand.”
“Based on the straightforward language of the remand order, the PUC was not only at liberty to consider pricing, it was required to consider the reasonability of the project’s pricing in light of its GHG emissions,” Eddins wrote.
The court also criticized Hu Honua’s claim that the commission held them to an unfair evidentiary standard in addressing its carbon neutrality claims.
Eddins agreed with the commission’s carbon calculations, which they based off of Hu Honua’s own data, explaining that if carbon neutrality could be reached under the proposal as the bioenergy company implied — which he expressed doubts about — it would be well after the deadline set in Hawaii’s pledge to reach 100% zero emissions statewide by 2045.
Several other renewable energy projects have already been put in place throughout the state. The Big Island, according to the utility itself, reached 60% renewable energy in 2022 through a mix of primarily solar, wind, and geothermal power.
In a concurring opinion, Justice Michael Wilson emphasized the environmental concerns. “Our review of the PUC’s decision is done with due regard for the climate emergency it faces on behalf of the people of Hawaii. Anthropogenic global warming — caused by the emission of greenhouse gases such as CO2 — has been described as a sui generis emergency.”