Thursday, August 21, 2008

Massive Blind Spot in Energy Planning Persists: Two Teams Needed Who Will Kick Off the OTEC Game

We begin by applauding the sentiments in today’s Honolulu Advertiser’s only editorial, “Let’s keep state focus on renewable energy.” It concludes:

“Now more than ever, Hawaii must take its place on the renewable-energy vanguard. And voters need to see that their leaders keep an eye on this important prize.”

We couldn’t agree more – and yet….there’s always something, isn’t there? We hate to quibble with a newspaper that agrees Hawaii must reduce its dependence on fossil fuel ASAP, but the Advertiser gives the appearance of missing a key point about the whole renewable energy picture.

What About Baseload Energy?

That point, of course, is ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC). Today’s editorial lists Hawaii’s green energy resources:

“The Islands’ ample potential in solar, wind, wave and geothermal energy make this a worthwhile campaign.” Flash back to the paper’s March 16 editorial, which included the same familiar list:

“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.”

We noted then and again now that OTEC is still missing from the Advertiser’s mix of renewable resources, and the omission is glaring. OTEC will be a baseload energy source, available 24/7. Geothermal is also baseload, of course, but it’s confined to the Big Island. Cultural and environmental considerations blocked further development of geothermal in the 1980s, and they probably remain impediments to further build-out. (Biomass, another potential 24/7 baseload source, also seems off the editorial writers' radar.)

So unlike most of the other resources on the Advertiser's list, OTEC has the potential for widespread development as baseload energy in the islands. Yet here we are, still waiting for a breakthrough in finding customer #1 for this technology, the Catch 22 in the OTEC equation.

Cheering from the Sidelines

With football season about to start, we OTEC supporters feel like fans sitting in the grandstands, all fired up and eager for OTEC’s kickoff. Only problem is, the two teams have yet to take the field.

One would be an OTEC developer armed with a long-term downfield vision but also prepared with a modest ground game for now. At first, Team OTEC would run Woody Hayes’s game plan – “four yards and a cloud of dust” -- knowing that a small plant could open the game up for worldwide expansion once OTEC is proven in our tropical environment.

The other team is Customer #1 – most likely Hawaiian Electric Company, which has an RFP out for 100 megawatts of renewable energy. It’s an all-comer RFP, so OTEC could supply some of that total with a small starter plant to prove the technology.

Wanted: Captains Courageous

As today’s Advertiser suggests, the grandstands are filled with cheering supporters hurt by their staggering dependence on imported oil more than residents of any other state. With the average electric rate in the state nearly three times the national average, the point is beyond debate.

The teams in this game are still in the locker room. They need to take the field, led by two courageous captains who will meet at the 50 yard line in the glare of publicity, shake hands and prepare for kickoff.

The teams that could play this game to a win-win conclusion are already well known. Hawaii can’t afford to delay the start of its OTEC era. So in the spirit of the moment, we say:

“Let’s go OTEC!”

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