Sunday, March 16, 2008
Thinking Bigger: OTEC Power for Lanai
This blog will have no shortage of material. Both Honolulu papers carry prominent energy-related items today about Hawaii's dependence on imported oil:
• Star-Bulletin: Rising oil prices spread beyond gas
• Advertiser Commentary: Private sector's ready to roll on renewable energy
• Advertiser editorial: Energy bills should keep environmental balance
Renewable energy for Lanai is the focus of today's post and the Advertiser commentary, but before we go there, consider the last sentence in the Advertiser's editorial:
"Now the state needs to see that the money is used wisely to tap the Islands' reservoir of power -- from the wind, waves, geothermal and, of course, the sun."
That summation is why we've started this blog. Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) is missing from the mix -- as it nearly always is when editorial writers and reporters list Hawaii's renewable options. (Extracting electrical power from the action of "waves" isn't the same as OTEC.) And where is the "reservoir of power" in the wind? Like the sun, wind power is intermittent, and cost-effective storage of that power isn't here yet. The tropical ocean is the world's largest solar collector and storage "battery" -- so big that small thinking apparently can't detect it.
A Fossil Fuel-Free Lanai
The commentary by Castle & Cooke Hawaii's CEO Harry Saunders discusses the company's plans for solar and wind power on the (former) pineapple isle. But to "...get Lana`i powered 100 percent by renewable energy" as he suggests, they're going to need more than intermittent sun and wind power, neither of which is base load generation. Planning a future wind farm that provides 300 to 400 megawatts of power for export to Oahu, as the company did when it first announced the project in June 2007, is laudable as far as it goes, but that wouldn't be "firm power" -- electricity that Hawaiian Electric and its customers could reliably count on. Optimum power output requires optimum wind performance, and we don't have to belabor the point that the wind doesn't blow 100 percent of the time.
So even with big solar and wind farms, Lanai's going to need a firm source of renewable energy if it's to get off oil. We doubt the viability of a new crop on the island to produce a biofuel; Lanai has already transitioned from agriculture to tourism, so reversing the direction seems implausible. And transporting a biofuel to burn in a generation plant would consume fossil fuel, negating the whole intent.
The OTEC Solution
Lanai could be the perfect location for the first OTEC plant in the islands. Lanai's electrical peak demand is small, so that first plant -- perhaps only 10 megawatts -- could literally satisfy the entire electric load. David Murdock, Castle & Cooke's CEO, already is committed to wind and solar energy to reduce the island's carbon footprint, and that's fine, but those renewables won't wipe away that footprint without a trace. And until an efficient, cost-effective energy battery system is developed, he'll still have to burn something in his generators when the sun's not shining and the winds are calm. Most likely, that something will be fossil fuel.
Castle & Cooke envisions exporting large blocks of electricity to the other islands, so installing an OTEC plant a few miles off Lanai wouldn't interfere with those plans. What it would do is make Lanai the greenest island on the planet. What a vision that would be -- and what a legacy for Mr. Murdock.