Saturday, April 19, 2008

Black Gold Hits $115/Barrel, Making OTEC Logical Solution to Hawaii’s Reliance on Oil for Electricity

April 22 Update: Oil hits $118/barrel. On PBS tonight: "Nova: Car of the Future"

Even though the news makes us wince, the steady rise in the price of oil is a beneficial wake-up call for everyone in Hawaii – consumers, government officials, utility executives, regulators, developers, etc. (Readers from the mainland and foreign lands might want to punch out now, because we’re going to be real parochial about Hawaii today.)

A recent post here focused on Hawaii’s remarkable and unfortunate distinction among all the states in our dependence on fuel oil for the generation of electricity. We’re around 77%; the next highest state at about 10% is Florida, with almost all other states at 2% or less. This disparity dates to the OPEC-inspired oil crisis of the 1970s and Congress’s subsequent mandate for mainland utilities to get off oil for electrical generation. Natural gas and coal became the fuels of choice.
But not in Hawaii. The state’s geographical isolation merited an exemption from this mandate, so we’ve continued to import fuel oil for our power. Here on Oahu, our dependence is around 90%.

We Can’t Keep Doing This

Truly, this dependence is a crisis – not one in the making, but one already here. Most consumables come to our shores by ship, and retail prices are going up fast, as is the cost of gasoline for the daily commute, electricity for home and business and air fares for tourists. Within the past month, two airlines that brought thousands of tourists here each week have gone out of business, and the cost of jet fuel was a huge factor. California’s unemployment rate in March “skyrocketed,” to quote the Sacramento Bee, to 6.2%, and not incidentally, California is Hawaii’s biggest mainland supplier of tourists.

So what do we do – soak the crying towel or toughen up to confront this oil-dependence issue more aggressively than ever?

There’s an Ocean Out There

In one of our first posts here, we said ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) is often strangely missing from the list of renewable energy options offered up by government officials and legislators, editorial writers and reporters and, yes, even utility executives and environmentalists – all of whom presumably know what OTEC is and should at least be conversant about its potential.

With the per-barrel price of oil well on its way to $120, $130 and higher, we are well beyond the talking stage. This blog exists to drive home that point and familiarize the uninitiated with OTEC and what it could mean for Oahu first and all of Hawaii eventually.

Cut to the Chase

What OTEC will do for this state is end our dependence on fuel oil to generate electricity. Other renewables will contribute to that goal, of course, but as we’ve noted here, most of them are intermittent sources of power. OTEC is base load, meaning it can crank out electricity around the clock and around the year, without interruption. (You can read about this technology and how it generates electricity from the world’s largest solar energy collector – the ocean – at any number of websites, but click here and here for some background.)

OTEC became economically viable long before oil hit $100/barrel. It’s environmentally benign, producing no emissions and creating a wealth of carbon offset credits that could itself be a boon for Hawaii. That’s all well and good, but let’s look at how OTEC could change the energy picture here.

Obviously, our homes and businesses will use OTEC power, but so will the coming fleet of plug-in cars that are nearing production in Detroit, Japan and elsewhere. The vast majority of Oahu commuters drive their cars less than 20 miles each way, a distance well within the range of future plug-ins.

What about mass transit? An opponent of Honolulu’s planned rail transit project testified at a City Council hearing this week that she’s against rail because it will require fossil fuel to generate its electricity. That’s simply not true. OTEC will replace fuel oil for generation here, which means Honolulu’s future train system will run on ocean power. As we say here in the islands, that can give you chicken skin.

OTEC’s Time Is Now

There can be no delay in moving this technology forward. Anyone in a position to influence long-term energy planning in Hawaii who doesn’t embrace OTEC is suspect at best and unbelievable at worst, with motives that invite inspection.

We’re not into make-wrong here, but seriously, we can’t be casual any longer about our crippling dependence on fossil fuel. The goal we all can share is eliminating that dependence because it affects all of us. Everybody who enjoys a swim in the ocean can become an advocate for using the ocean’s warmth to light their homes and power our cars in the not-too-distant future.

So while we hate the consequences, each increase in the price of oil brings us closer to that goal. If any "good news" can be gleaned from these increases, that's it.


Anonymous said...


Problem: No one wants to be the first one to finance a $100 million OTEC plant and jump into the deep unknown.

Solution: Federal legislation to create a $80 million loan guarantee.


prh said...

Perhaps some explaination is due from the NELHA administration as to why the RFP for a 1 MW OTEC plant at NELHA has not been issued after being in the works since August 2007. There are two companies with their own financing that are ready to build that plant.

Doug Carlson said...

The comment by "prh" echoes other suggestions that NELHA could be doing much more to advance OTEC than is seemingly the case. The board meets frequently; maybe someone with standing and credibility can ask that question front and center.