Story by Paul Wood
Photos by Olivier Koning
The Puna district of the Big Island lives atop a lake of lava. At the south end of this fifty-mile coastal stretch, molten rock flows into the sea and the Pacific sends up monstrous towers of steam. At the north end, at the Lava Tree State Monument, a grove of flash-fried tree trunks stands as a reminder of what can happen when magma visits the surface world.
Not far from that ghost forest stands a very different expression of fire meets water and land. This place, Puna Geothermal Venture (PGV), taps volcanic steam and super-hot brine, then converts that fury into electricity. PGV sells its product to the Hawaii Electric Light Company (HELCO), which is the Big Island’s sole distributor of electric power. Volcanic power is now providing about 20 percent of that island’s electrical needs.
Yes, you read that right: Geothermal is underway in the Islands. Many in Hawai‘i remember geothermal’s troubles during the 1980s—community protests and adverse judicial rulings—and assume the industry got snuffed out. Not so. PGV has been generating power since 1993: lying low, building capacity and waiting for geothermal’s new day.
That day may well have arrived. The state, with its Hawai‘i Clean Energy Initiative, has set the goal of 70 percent “clean, locally developed, renewable energy” by the year 2030—and volcanic heat seems destined to play a role.