Saturday, November 29, 2008

More News on OTEC Deal Strangely Still Missing

We offered a champagne toast when the news broke on a collaboration to build a 10-megawatt ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) plant in Hawaii. Yet 11 days later, there’s still no follow-up from the parties to what Governor Lingle’s office released on November 18th.

We don’t doubt the truth of the announcement made in Taiwan during a State trade mission. Still, it’s puzzling that the only news about the OTEC plant has come from the Governor’s office. Far as we can tell, neither Lockheed Martin nor the Industrial Technology Research Institute of Taiwan has issued a release.

If this is as big a deal as ocean energy enthusiasts hope it is, surely the parties want to put their own spin on their plans. But they haven’t, and that makes you wonder.

Lockheed representatives will be in Hawaii next week, and maybe that’s when we’ll learn more about what could be a breakthrough in renewable energy development here.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

More Reasons To Be Thankful than We Can Count

Pardon us for indulging in some personal thanks before we get on with the usual business of this website. As parents of three adults who are contributing to their world in unique ways, and as grandparents of two great kids who live about three minutes away, we have much to be thankful for.

Hawaii’s renewable energy scene has had an up year, too, starting with the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative that was announced early this year by the Governor and the federal Department of Energy.

The Hawaii news media, which seemed burdened with blinders that restricted their vision to the obvious renewable energy technologies (windmills do mesmerize), are now broadening their horizons. Ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) is finding a place in their editorials and stories, and since we began this blog specifically to build OTEC awareness, that’s a good thing. And thanks to private industry, OTEC has a brighter future than we could have imagined earlier this year.  (An Advertiser columnist makes our point on both counts in a day-before-Thanksgiving Day piece.)

Thankful for a Progressive Utility

What a refreshing change it is to have an electric utility taking a leadership position in advancing the state’s renewable energy interests. We have to admit to a soft spot for Hawaiian Electric; being there gave this inveterate communicator more on-air time than we could have imagined thanks to numerous island-wide power outages during the years we handled communications for the company. HECO brought wind farms and a geothermal plant online during that decade, but its recent leadership in partnering with the State deserves special recognition.

In that regard, the State government deserves thanks for its own initiatives, beginning with the aforementioned Clean Energy Initiative. More recently, the Governor announced a major agreement involving the State, HECO and the Consumer Advocate that, if the hype is to be believed, promises to transform the regulatory environment here and create a new business model that rewards the utilities for renewable energy innovation rather than for kilowatthour sales.

Non-Profits Stand Tall

The non-profit community deserves accolades, too. Entrepreneur Henk Rogers launched his Blue Planet Foundation with a spectacular Summit in April that brought Dr. Stephen Schneider (of the Nobel Prize-winning Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change), James Woolsey, Denis Hayes and Robert Kennedy, Jr. to Oahu to share their views and stimulate discussion on the clear and present danger of the planet’s continued fossil fuel dependence. Rogers, by the way, has one big matzah ball of a mission statement hanging out there – to end fossil fuel use on the planet, beginning in Hawaii. What’s not to like about that!?

Not to be forgotten, the Hawaii Venture Capital Association sponsored a series of monthly meetings on renewable energy development late this summer, attracting standing-room-only luncheon crowds.

Thankful for Being Taken Seriously

Finally, we’re really thankful for the interest of visitors to this website from around the world – literally around the world. Our SiteMeter service keeps track of visitors in dozens of countries who check in with us regularly. Relax – we don’t know exactly who you are, just your ISPs.

Thanks for reading these posts since our launch on March 14th. And thank you for supporting renewable energy development – especially if that support helps Hawaii prove what a small but determined society can do to rid itself of fossil fuel dependence.

Oh, yeah. We almost forgot: Thanks for Hawaii-born Barack Obama. Forget it, Chicago. He’s ours!

Friday, November 21, 2008

News about Pilot OTEC Plant Caught in Doldrums, But the OTEC Buzz Is Picking Up Around the World

NewScientist's illustration of an OTEC cycle.

We have another bottle of champagne ready to pop when more news is released about the pilot ocean thermal energy (OTEC) pilot plant slated for development here (see earlier post for the first pour).

Either coincidentally or providentially, the OTEC buzz seems to be picking up around the nation and world. The current issue of NewScientist, which went to press before Tuesday’s OTEC announcement, carries a long story on the technology’s promise and potential hurdles. A standout quote from the piece:

“This has the potential to become the biggest source of renewable energy in the world.” – Robert Cohen

We’ll leave the world to Mr. Cohen, but it parallels what we’ve been saying about OTEC’s potential in Hawaii. The tropical ocean traps prodigious amounts of solar energy each day; the quote we’ve heard is that the daily absorption is the equivalent of 250 billion barrels of oil.

OTEC also gets a look from Softpedia’s “Sci Pri” column and the Science Blog. All well and good, but we’re eagerly awaiting additional news about the Hawaii pilot plant. 

Surely Lockheed Martin and its Taiwanese partner, the Taiwan Industrial Technology Research Institute, will have something to say about this project, and soon (one would hope).

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Still Waiting for Details re Hawaii’s Pilot OTEC Plant

It’s been a little more than 24 hours since we learned of the ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) pilot plant project planned for Hawaii, and the “when” and “where” details – not included in the press release -- have yet to be distributed in a followup release.

An important “who” also wasn’t spelled out, but we have to believe Hawaiian Electric Company or one of its subsidiaries will be involved. We’ve called the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism (DBEDT) to fill in those blanks and will update this post when the information is received.

6 p.m. UPDATE: A DBEDT representative called to say the multi-party agreement announced by the Governor last month has these details, including the mention of HECO as the utility and HECO's Kahe power plant on Oahu's leeward coast as the site. So we're beginning to see yesterday's OTEC pilot plant announcement in a new light -- as a continuation of the earlier agreement. The truly "new" news is the pairing of Lockheed Martin and the Taiwan Industrial Technology Research Institute to construct and demonstrate the plant.

Here's our suggestion to DBEDT and the Governor's office: Interested parties around the world are waiting for more news about who, when and where, and it would be preferable to put this information in one updated press release or statement, rather than require everyone to search them out in other documents. Just a thought....

We’ve gently urged our daily papers to jump on this story and give it the coverage it deserves, but so far the announcement has merited only relatively brief mention in the Advertiser and Star-Bulletin. We invite our visitors to keep returning to this blog for updates, as we’re following developments as much or more than anyone else.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

OTEC Shoe Finally Falls; Lockheed To Team with Taiwanese To Build Demonstration Plant in Hawaii

Pardon our enthusiasm, but we think this news deserves a toast --
appropriately backed by an ocean with limitless power generation potential.

We’ve been predicting it for months – and as recently as two days ago. Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) technology is going to be built in Hawaii!

We have to say it’s about time. First theorized in the 1880s and shown to be feasible, at least in a small way, in the 1970s off the Kona Coast in Hawaiian waters, OTEC is potentially the major baseload generation source that will free Hawaii from its addiction to imported oil.

The announcement came today from Governor Linda Lingle’s office, which issued a press release that begs for more details – such as when and where. We’ll probably hear from Lockheed Martin in a day or a few more. (Pacific Business News carried the first media story to our knowledge.)

According to the release, Lockheed will team with the Taiwan Industrial Technology Research Institute to build a 10-megawatt plant. More details to come……

(See this blog's first post for some background on OTEC.)

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Bring On the Energy Options, but Should Hawaii Embrace Them All Just Because They’re Possible?

Like many others, we’ve been in a post-election state of mind, imagining changes in energy policy that the Obama Administration and a more progressive Congress might deliver. Then the Sunday Advertiser arrived with three energy-related commentaries that nudged us out of our hiatus.

Hawaiian Electric Company executive vice president Robbie Alm has the lead commentary in the paper’s Focus section. Alm discusses the Clean Energy Agreement announced last month in the Governor’s office with considerable fanfare. The piece repeats much of what we already know about HECO’s transformation to a new business model.

That agreement is Jay Fidell’s subject in his “Think Tech” column in the Business section, but with a different slant. Under a headline that predicts billions of dollars in renewable investment costs, Fideil says those costs will be paid by consumers. He’s also concerned that the Legislature may be left on the sidelines if only the Public Utilities Commission and a State department have power over its implementation. He asks, “Should we react in awe, or in concern?”

The third commentary is by Rep. Cynthia Thielen, a member of the dwindling Republic minority in the Legislature, who advocates a major investment in wave energy conversion technology for Hawaii. Her vision: “Wave energy in Hawaii could meet 100 percent of the power needs of our Neighbor Islands, and 80 percent here on Oahu.”

Time for a Pause

Two of the three commentaries today are evidence of widespread enthusiasm for renewable energy technologies to help Hawaii get off oil. While enthusiasm and the goal both are desirable, Fidell’s column is a worthy read because of the caution he suggests is needed in our rush to embrace renewables.

The danger, as we see it, is that waves of enthusiasm from different quarters will pile up on one another, like a tsunami at the shoreline, washing away everything in its path. As Fidell notes, the undersea cable to connect Lanai and Molokai with Oahu to transmit wind energy alone could cost up to $800 million, and we consumers are going to pay that bill.

So it’s useful to ask repeatedly as we head down this path, is each and every renewable energy technology that’s promoted worth developing? For example, what are we to make of the assertion that wave energy derived from sea surges could meet 100 percent of the Neighbor Islands’ power requirements, and 80 percent on Oahu?

Can that truly be the case, or might there be a shortfall on days like today? From where we sit, the ocean looks like a mirror this morning, and one wonders how much electricity would be finding its way to shore on days like this. And if wave energy likely can’t be considered baseload power, capable of generating electricity 24/7 year-round, do we assume a breakthrough in energy storage capability that will get us through the calms?

If not, the utilities would have to have other generation sources – baseload sources – at the ready if wave power falters. What would fire those backup generators, and what about the environmental implications of wave power and the “wiring” of our shorelines? These and more questions need answers before we can return the enthusiasm for wave power.

And Then There’s Wind

The biggest wind energy project being touted in Hawaii is the Castle & Cooke proposal to build hundreds of turbines on Lanai and send the power via undersea cable to Oahu and perhaps the other islands in Maui County. Wind energy generates enthusiasm just about everywhere its proposed with some exceptions. The Waianae Coast community on Oahu rejected HECO’s proposal because of the project’s perceived visual “blight,” and some Lanai residents also are concerned about what the project would do to their island.

Nevertheless, David Murdock’s Lanai plan – like the Pickens Plan for a wind energy mega-project in the Great Plains – is building support in the islands. In these early evaluation stages, the project looks like a winner all around: Castle & Cooke could turn money-losing Lanai into a revenue generator, and the state would replace polluting oil-fired generation with clean wind power.

But then there’s that pesky Jay Fidell and his observation that the cost of building the cable, as well as the wind farm construction costs, essentially would be paid by consumers in their electric rates. As we’ve come to appreciate over the years, alternate energy isn’t free energy, and just because the wind blows free doesn’t mean our rates will go down. The infrastructure’s capital investment is huge.

Come One, Come All?

So we finally come to the point suggested in the headline over today’s post: Should Hawaii embrace all renewable energy technologies just because it’s possible to do so? Should we take them all on like mountain climbers – just because they’re there?

We think the answer is no. There’s little enthusiasm today for the early biofuel energy proposals that would have resulted in deforestation to make room for palm oil plantations. In that vein, each of the proposals being trotted out before consumers deserves scrutiny.

For us, the key issue is baseload generation. If a renewable energy project doesn’t have the capability to deliver power around the clock, questions must be asked about the backup requirement for each project. If the goal is to prevent new fossil fuel generation and replace current fossil fuel generation, clean baseload generation sources of energy must be introduced.

The Ocean Around Us

We started this blog on March 14th to generate discussion about ocean thermal energy conversion, a technology in search of a customer. To avoid becoming a Johnny One Note on this subject, we’ve often written about the other clean technologies that can contribute to Hawaii’s quest to Get Off Oil.

That said, OTEC stands out as the best long-term solution to Hawaii’s energy predicament. OTEC is baseload generation, unlike wind, wave and solar technology in the absence of massive storage capabilities.

OTEC demonstration projects in Hawaii are almost certain to be announced soon; HECO has recently had good things to say about ocean energy (in August and as recently as nine days ago). If the developers’ predictions are proven in these trials, OTEC could be on the long path to provide 100 percent of the state’s electrical energy requirements.

Would an $800 million consumer-backed investment in an undersea cable from Lanai impede acceptance of large-scale OTEC development? We’re not qualified to venture an answer, but the State Consumer Advocate surely would know or should be prepared to find out. And if the answer is yes, would clean energy baseload generation be delayed due to early investment in intermittent wind power on a grand scale?

As Fidell suggests, intense scrutiny is required for all these proposals, including HECO’s new business model, to ensure decisions made in the years immediately ahead will be in the public interest and result in a clean and affordable future for our grandchildren decades from now.
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Have a different view or something to contribute to the discussion? Please do so with the Comments link, below.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Gore Says Obama Should Announce a National Goal: Achieve 100% Renewable Energy Use in a Decade

It’s been a week since Barack Obama won the presidency, and already he’s being urged to announce a national goal to achieve 100 percent renewable energy dependence within a decade. Al Gore doesn’t aim low.

The former Vice President and Nobel Laureate announced this goal at the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco last week, striking while the iron was hot, and he outlined his five-point plan days later in a commentary for the New York Times’ wider audience.

Mr. Gore minces no words, and he’s nothing if not consistent. On July 17, we highlighted his warning that “The survival of the United States of America as we know it is at risk.” He writes in his Times piece:

“To those of you who are still tempted to dismiss the increasingly urgent alarms from scientists around the world…, please wake up. Our children and grandchildren need you to hear and recognize the truth of our situation, before it is too late.”

Gore’s 5-Part Plan

1. Large-scale investment incentives for massive solar, wind and geothermal power plants.
2. Construct a smart grid for the country, including high-voltage, low-loss underground lines.
3. Help America’s automobile industry convert to electric plug-in hybrids to run on renewable energy.
4. Retrofit buildings to make them efficient.
5. Put a price on carbon emissions in the United States and lead the way at next November’s Copenhagen conference (a Kyoto successor) to establish tough emission caps.

Gore’s Plan…the Pickens Plan…they all would move us closer to a stronger, more secure America and cleaner world, but the only plan that really matters will be the Obama Plan, which the President-Elect presumably will unveil in a matter of weeks.

His home state of Hawaii is gearing up for the energy transformation to come and will be an all-in participant out of necessity. Our overwhelming dependence on imported oil demands it.

Friday, November 7, 2008

HECO, Blue Planet Hit the Road Again Promoting a Hawaii Powered Exclusively by Renewable Energy

The headline may overstate it a bit as far as Hawaiian Electric’s Robbie Alm is concerned, but that’s what entrepreneur Henk Rogers is fighting for. The two have become a “traveling truth team” about Hawaii’s extraordinary dependence on fossil fuel and the imperative to develop renewable energy alternatives here as quickly as possible.

Alm and Rogers made an impression the first time they spoke to a Nature Conservancy of Hawaii gathering a few weeks ago and were invited back for a repeat performance at breakfast yesterday. Entrepreneur Rogers (of Tetris fame) created the Blue Planet Foundation last year with a super aggressive mission to end fossil fuel use on the planet, beginning with Hawaii.

What’s extraordinary about their road show is that Alm – executive vice president of Hawaii’s largest electric utility, which in years past would have made him “Mr. Conservative” – is nearly as provocative as Rogers in advocating massive changes for his company. Here’s a summary of their remarks:

Rogers: No Rest in Paradise

The digital game pioneer led off by coaxing applause from his audience about Barack Obama’s election to the highest office in the land. (For more on the hometown pride theme, see Lee Cataluna’s “Kama`aina President” column in today’s Honolulu Advertiser.)

Rogers predicted Hawaii will be in the spotlight as the nation and world try to figure out what it is about this place that could produce someone so remarkable. And when they drop in for a look, maybe they’ll learn how Hawaii’s geographical isolation has made it overwhelmingly dependent on fossil fuel for nearly all its energy.

Utilities burned oil to generate 78 percent of the state’s electricity in 2006; coal produced another 13 percent. Renewable energy contributed only a little more than 6 percent, so it’s easy to appreciate, he said, why $147/barrel oil has truly damaged the state’s economy.

With Obama’s election, Rogers said the call for new energy sources no longer can be “Drill, Baby, Drill” but something with a “green” hue. “Change we must,” he said, and that change can and should be at its most aggressive in Hawaii, out of necessity.

(11/9 UPDATE: The Honolulu Star-Bulletin's editorial today -- "Obama's energy push a natural for Hawaii" -- sees great opportunity for Hawaii to be a laboratory for renewable energy development during the Obama Administration.  11/10 UPDATE: Al Gore has urged Obama to go 100 percent renewable energy in a decade; he made the call at the Web 2.0 Summit last week.)

Rogers said individuals and businesses also can contribute to reducing fossil fuel demand by grabbing the “low-hanging fruit.” While Hawaii leads the nation in home solar water-heating units, another 75 percent of the homes here have yet to install them.

Replacing incandescent light bulbs with efficient alternatives should be encouraged, and hybrid cars have become an affordable way for families to transition to a renewable economy. (Rogers rides a plug-in electric bicycle to his in-town appointments; his wife drives their only car, a Prius.)

Rogers praised HECO and the State Administration for their recent agreement to spur renewable energy development by creating a new business model for the state’s largest utility. He encouraged his audience to support legislative and regulatory changes that will be necessary to achieve the transformation. And he invited individuals to join with Blue Planet Foundation to help end fossil fuel dependence in the Islands:

“HECO and the State have made an historic leap in the right direction, and I thank them. Blue Planet Foundation will not rest until the last oil and gas tankers and the last coal transports have left the shores of this paradise. And when I say paradise, I’m not just talking about the great State of Hawaii and not just the United States of America. I mean Mother Earth – the one and only true Blue Planet.”

Alm: Renewables to the Max

HECO’s Alm contrasted Hawaii’s energy mix with the mainland’s and noted that the Big 4 of mainland energy sources – coal, nuclear, natural gas and large-scale hydro – simply won’t work in Hawaii. The four produce 96 percent of the mainland’s energy, while renewables contribute only 2 percent. Hawaii already gets 9 percent from renewables and has the potential to dramatically drive that percentage much higher.

“We’ll be trying to push wind and solar energy to their maximum contributions with long-term contracts,” he said, and he spoke encouragingly about the anticipated investment in ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) here by Lockheed Martin, which has been working on OTEC for decades. Alm said Lockheed’s multi-million-dollar investment in this baseload generation technology will help cut into the state’s oil imports. (Alm spoke earlier this year about HECO's intent to establish "set-asides" for ocean energy technology.)

But Alm noted that intermittent power sources such as wind farms require backup from the utility to ensure a consistent supply during lulls. “From an operating standpoint, running our power plants will get harder, not easier,” he said, a message he said he tells power plant operators. Introducing large numbers of electric cars to the islands could produce the surprising benefit of greater system reliability; in a nighttime generation crisis, Alm said, thousands of plugged-in cars could feed their stored energy back into HECO’s grid.

Alm said Hawaiian Electric has to suppress the fear of operating under a different business model, no longer exercising a monopoly over electricity generation. “We’ll get there, because the last few months have been so difficult working with our customers” as the price of oil reached unprecedented levels. “We don’t want to do that again,” he said, and suggested customers put one of their electric bills from last summer on their refrigerator to remind them what oil dependency looks like.

Alm said we’ll certainly see a return to those high oil prices again as the citizens of China and India strive to emulate the consumer society America has created. “We need to convince others not to follow our energy-consumption model,” he said. (China's Premier has some ideas about developed countries' "unsustainable way of life.")

In conclusion, Alm said Hawaii has a history of cutting back and retrenching during tough economic times as her population tries to survive. “What we don’t do is pick some issue and stick to it, even in a recession, with the intent to come flying out of the downturn,” he said. The quest for renewable energy can break that pattern, he suggested, and although there will be up-front costs to facilitate renewables and transmission systems, such as underwater cables to move wind energy from Lanai and Molokai to Oahu, the long-term benefits will be immense.

Both Alm and Rogers said politicians and regulators deserve support when they undertake initiatives to usher in Hawaii’s green revolution. The Henk and Robbie Show may be bringing that message to a venue near you in the weeks ahead.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Would Obama Be Too Much of a ‘Homer' if He Made Hawaii THE World Model for Renewable Energy?

(11/9 Update: The Honolulu Star-Bulletin doesn't think so; see today's editorial.)
“President-Elect Obama” has a beautiful ring to it – especially here in his home state. Environmentalists and renewable energy advocates have reason to be happy about the election results, too.

Wind, solar and ocean energy initiatives should thrive in the Obama Administration, and we’re likely to hear precious little talk about “Drill, Baby, Drill” – and even less enthusiasm for nuclear power.

So let’s resurrect our apocryphal conversation with the President-Elect about making Hawaii a model for renewable energy development. Hawaii – the most oil-dependent of the American states, the most isolated society in the entire world, an example of ethnic harmony despite our faults and an island chain rich in renewable energy development potential that can be a model for others to follow.

If a son of Hawaii can become President of the United States, nothing is impossible. Let Hawaii's age of renewable energy leadership begin.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Energy Island Plan Includes OTEC, Wind, Currents

Posting here has dropped off this week thanks to a pre-election holiday in Maui’s Kaanapali, where the trade winds have been strong and undoubtedly are turning the nearby wind turbines impressively. We’ve restricted ourselves to the occasional renewable energy item to come through on a weak wireless connection.

Here’s one on “sustainable modular islands” that includes a video presentation showing how ocean current power, wind power and ocean thermal energy conversion technologies might be integrated in floating energy islands. The concept will be presented at an energy conference in Shanghai in a couple weeks.