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.