Sunday, February 15, 2009

OTEC May be ‘Big Picture’ Long-Range Solution, but Solar Energy Is Making an Impact Here and Now

We once heard ocean thermal energy conversion called the “enemy” by a solar energy developer. He and possibly some others in the emerging renewable energy industry see OTEC as just another big industrial process requiring huge investments like existing power plants. How huge? According to Joe Van Ryzin of Makai Ocean Engineering, Oahu’s first “starter” plant may require an investment of $200-300 million. Solar advocates have little to fear from OTEC for at least a decade – if ever.

Jay Fidell provides an update on the current state of local solar energy development in his Think Tech column in today’s Advertiser:

“There’s been a dramatic quickening – some say a revolution – in commercial solar installation in Hawaii. We’ve heard of photovoltaic panels on residential rooftops, but now we’re hearing about large commercial solar installations, too.”

Commercial solar is where the action is these days (photo shows Sunectric's installation at Windward Honda), and the action can only increase if the cost of oil starts climbing again as most predict. 

Too Much Abundance?

Combined with improvements in energy storage capabilities, large-scale wind and solar energy development eventually could make OTEC investment seem less attractive if renewables cut dramatically into the fossil fuel requirement to generate electricity here.

Still, we can’t see turning our backs on the world’s greatest solar energy collector and “battery” – the tropical ocean. The old advice about keeping balance in our lives undoubtedly applies here, as well. Hawaii is on the right path in developing its wind and solar energy resources, but success in those fields shouldn’t dampen enthusiasm for what OTEC can do for the state and the nation.

Makai Ocean Engineering’s Van Ryzin also predicted in his lecture that OTEC could be a critical component to a future hydrogen economy in America. Hawaii would have advantages in such an economy thanks to the state’s access to the tropical ocean – reason enough to keep the focus on OTEC as a potential energy and economic game-changer in the islands.


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prh said...

It would be interesting to see some discussion from the utility and renewable developers regarding battery or other energy storage. What level of "penetration" by intermittent sources can HECO incorporate? They have been fairly quiet on the subject. All the renewable capacity has to be backed up by fossil generators that kick in every night and on windless days. That is really the strength of OTEC, firm power, meeting the requirements of the peak load as well as charging electric car batteries and/or producing hydrogen at night. PV installations suit the power needs of the 9 to 5 commercial world but how many homeowners are ready for a battery bank in their garage or spare bedroom. If PV and wind installations had to provide firm power would the economics look as attractive? The high price of electricity in Hawaii is making renewables very attractive but can intermittent power sources plus storage compete with mature OTEC?