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.


Anonymous said...

I think we best be getting on with the promise of making America energy independent.Iran just asked OPEC to reduce production by yet another 1.5 million barrels per day.This past year and the record gas prices played a huge part in our economic meltdown and seriously damaged our society.We keep planning to spend BILLIONS on bailouts and stimulus plans.Bail us out of our dependence on foreign oil. Make electric plug in car technology more affordable. It cost the equivalent of 60 cents a gallon to drive an electric plug in car. The electric could be generated from wind or solar. Get with it! Utilize free sources such as wind and solar. Stop throwing away money on things that don't work. Invest in America and it's energy independence. Create cheap clean energy, create millions of badly needed green collar jobs. Put America back to work. It is a win-win situation. We have to become more poractive citizens, educate ourselves and demand our elected officials move this country forward into the era of energy independence. Jeff Wilson's new book The Manhattan Project of 2009 Energy Independence NOW outlines a plan for America to wean itself off oil. We need a plan and we need it now!

Doug Carlson said...

Thank you, anonymous, for that energetic contribution. We'll make a point of reading Jeff Wilson's book and recommend "Freedom From Mid-East Oil" mentioned in this blog's July 26th post.

Anonymous said...

I agree with anonymous and you. However, let me provide some perspective on the enormity of the problem. Way back in July I posted an article in the Huffington Post entitled, Billions and Trillions. I said that if we added up the total cost of the Manhattan Project, Marshall Plan and Apollo Mission, and brought this figure up to 2008 values, the total was $240 billion. While this sounds like a lot, Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, in his book of this sum, said the Iraq/Afghanistan War will cost $3 trillion ($3,000 billion). Further, the International Energy Agency earlier this year reported that the world needs to spend $45 trillion ($45,000 billion)just to control global warming. That is more than 2000 Manhattan Projects! The problem is that decision-makers are not taking this seriously enough, as I repeat in my HuffPost of today on WALL-E, EVE and Barack. When you come down to it, though, we are the primary problem. People just don't care enough, and many, I'm sure are again thinking about buying that SUV. Finally, in addition to terrestrial biodiesel, I think that ethanol is bad, and, hate to say it, but wavepower scares me. While wind power can be produced for less than 6 cents per kilowatt-hour, the first OTEC facility will probably do so for something over 25 cents/kWh, so I trust that some combination of industry and government can get this technology over the hurdle, as they did for wind energy.


Pat Takahashi
(not sure I have a password)

Doug Carlson said...

Pat, your "word" is your password, far as I'm concerned. Thanks for your comment...although let me venture a suggestion that if you're going to draw in the under 40 (50?) set, you better start using different frames of reference. Manhattan Project -- is that the jazz vocal group, Manhattan Transfer, after it changed personnel? And did the Marshall Plan have something to do with Hollywood Squares?

I'm afraid you're right about the quickly forgotten syndrome,and that's why you, the Blue Planet Foundation, SOEST, HECO and many many others here in Hawaii have to keep driving the message home. Thanks again for your comment.