Volcanic eruptions are one of the most awesome — and terrifying — displays of nature’s fury. They can spew clouds of hot ash, streams of molten lava, and even generate giant tornadoes of fire.
But that ferocious power can be harnessed to help push us into a golden age of renewable energy.
Costa Rica made headlines earlier this year when it announced that it had operated for more than two months on 100% renewable energy. Geothermal energy siphoned from active volcanoes made up a good chunk of that figure.
Although Costa Rica probably can’t maintain its renewable model long-term, it’s still a huge achievement and demonstrates that converting to renewables is possible on a grand scale.
Now Hawaii is positioning itself to create a 100% renewable-sourced electrical grid — something no US state has achieved. Unlike Costa Rica, however, Hawaii plans to put the infrastructure and safeguards in place to make the milestone permanent.
Governor David Ige signed a bill on June 8 pledging that Hawaii will become completely energy self-sustaining by 2045. If the government follows through, geothermal energy from volcanoes will play a big role.
Hawaii’s energy crunch
The state has 30 years to pull off its plan. About half of Hawaiians think their government can achieve its goal, Dawn Lippert, director of the Energy Excelerator in Hawaii, told Tech Insider. The other half isn’t so sure.
Either way, Hawaii has a big motivation to adopt renewables: it has no significant reserves of coal, oil, natural gas, or other fossil fuels. In fact, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, it costs the state about $US5 billion per year to import enough oil from to meet its citizens’ energy demands. This ends up costing Hawaiians two to three times the national average for electricity.
The good news is that Hawaii has an abundance of natural energy sources. It has access to solar, wind, flowing water, ocean waves, and — of course — volcanoes. Based on data from 2015, right now Hawaii already gets close to one-quarter of its energy from renewable sources.
Tapping into volcanoes
The secret to getting that number up to 100% may be inside the state’s five active volcanoes.
Engineers can tap these hot spots for geothermal energy by sucking up hot briney groundwater, converting it to steam to power turbines, and then delivering the resulting electricity to the main power grid.
The Big Island alone gets about 50% of its energy from a mixture of renewable sources. A lot of that is thanks to the state’s only geothermal plant — Puna Geothermal Venture — which sits on the eastern rift zone of the Kilauea Volcano.
Some researchers estimate the Big Island could get more than 50% of its total energy from geothermal power alone. The eastern part of the island has a lot of geothermal activity, thanks to Kilauea Volcano. You can see active lava flows in the southeastern edge of this geological map as dark lines and puffs of smoke:
Yes, building a power plant by a volcano is risky
Geothermal sounds like the perfect solution: a natural, nearly inexhaustible power source that’s always switched on (unlike solar or wind). But if a power plant sitting on the rim of an unpredictable volcano sounds dangerous, that’s because it can be.
Fortunately, Kilauea is relatively safe; the likelihood of a catastrophy is low. A huge chunk of the crater would have to collapse and sink nearly 2,000 feet to trigger a major eruption. Volcanologists would see plenty of signs before such an event occured, sound the alarms, and evacuate everyone in the danger zone.
Drilling wells to feed new geothermal plants poses a more likely problem. If a drill rig unexpectedly hits an extremely hot- and high-pressure steam zone, the well can explode in a blowout. Steam blowouts sound like a jet aeroplane taking off, and they can spew harmful gases like hydrogen sulfide. (The Puna plant operated incident-free for 22 years until March 2015, when a major blowout released toxic gas into the air.)
Still, when geothermal is done right, it’s an incredible resource — especially for a volcanically active place like Hawaii. Renewable energy companies are eager to tap into Mauna Loa, a giant volcano in the center of the Big Island that’s near several volcanic hot spots:
Some native Hawaiians oppose this idea because they believe volcanoes are home to deities.
When Tech Insider visited Kilauea Volcano in June, a group of natives sang an ancient Hawaiian song in front of the volcano and left behind a lei as a token for the gods:
That’s because some Hawaiians believe Mauna Loa is home to the deity Pele, and say it shouldn’t be disturbed. Others argue that the free energy source is Pele’s gift to Hawaii, and the island should take advantage of it.
For now opponents have stalled the construction of a new geothermal plant by Mauna Loa. There are also plans, however, to expand the aforementioned Puna plant.
Hawaii will need to use a mix of renewables to hit its 2045 goal, but geothermal energy may be one of the most efficient and bountiful sources.
Ultimately, Lippert said Hawaii’s success will depend on one critical factor: innovation. The state not only needs to invest in making renewables safer and more efficient, but also innovate its communication and collaboration practices if it hopes to go 100% renewable.
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